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Rickenbacker Airport sets cargo records in June

Emirates delivers pandemic supplies with cargo-only passenger planes

Emirates is operating passenger planes filled with cargo to Rickenbacker International Airport, which doesn't serve passengers. (Photo: Columbus Regional Airport Authority)

(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.

Heathrow blues

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. 

Brussels Airport is one of the few passenger-oriented airports that experienced year-over-year cargo growth in June. (

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]