(Updated July 30, 2:45 P.M. ET with more detailed cargo statistics)
Rickenbacker International Airport, a cargo-dedicated facility near Columbus, Ohio, set an all-time monthly record with 20.3 million pounds of international inbound cargo handled in June, eclipsing the previous mark by 4 million pounds with the help of passenger freighters never operated before the COVID crisis.
The Columbus Regional Airport Authority said it also broke a record for international freighter arrivals with 120. In November 2018, Rickenbacker received 109 international all-cargo aircraft that offloaded 16 million pounds of cargo.
Including domestic and outbound operations, 31.4 million pounds of cargo moved across its ramps in June, 31% more than the average monthly volume in 2019.
Airport officials attributed the hike in business almost entirely to charter operators transporting personal protective equipment and other COVID-related supplies for regional distribution. Although the need for emergency shipments of hospital gear has slightly subsided since April and May, logistics and aviation specialists say planes are still streaming from Asia and other destinations with medical supplies.
The resurgence of the novel coronavirus in large sections of the U.S. suggests that more face coverings and other equipment from overseas will be needed in the next few months, with air the preferred mode in many cases.
Rickenbacker is one of the only nonpassenger hub airports in the world to see a significant number of temporary freighter flights, said Bryan Schreiber, manager of air cargo business development, in an interview. Airlines began offering charters and scheduled routes dedicated to cargo customers after withdrawing most passenger flights from their schedules when the coronavirus exploded around the world. Passenger airlines typically send cargo-only mini-freighters to their passenger hubs for operational ease and because that’s where their crews are based, he said.
Rickenbacker Aviation, the airport’s in-house ground-handling company, offloads the Emirates cargo chartered by freight forwarder Expo Freight Logistics.
Evan Rosen, EFL’s president for the Americas region, said in an email that the logistics company finds it “more conducive to land those flights in Rickenbacher because the ground handling is much more flexible as opposed to landing in Chicago or [Kennedy airport in New York] with the congestion. The additional time needed to unload those aircraft really is conducive to the smaller cargo airport.”
Rickenbacker is nearly even with last year’s cargo volume at the halfway point after a double-digit first-quarter decline that carried over from the weak airfreight market in 2019. But cargo-related revenues have outperformed internal forecasts year-to-date because of the onrush of shipments since April, Schreiber said.
Several regional airports that cater to cargo operators are seeing a significant bounce in business as shippers try to avoid delays at major hubs that aren’t equipped to handle the huge increase in pure freighter and mini-freighter traffic. Regional airports that emphasize cargo service include Rockford International Airport near Chicago, Huntsville International Airport in Alabama, Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina, and Ontario International Airport in California.
Meanwhile, most international gateways have lost cargo business compared to last year despite a surge in freighter activity. That’s because there aren’t enough all-cargo aircraft to make up for lost cargo space in the bottom of passenger planes grounded until travel demand picks up.
London Heathrow Airport said Wednesday that it experienced a 32% drop in cargo tonnage during the first half compared to the same period in 2019. The U.K.’s largest airport saw passenger numbers tumble 96% in the second quarter.