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Rickenbacker Airport’s cargo roller coaster heads up in 2021

New investment in pharmaceutical storage continues product diversification

Freighter aircraft at Rickenbacker International Airport. (Photo: Columbus Regional Airport Authority)

Several U.S. airports that cater to cargo saw upswings in volume last year because of huge trade flows and increased reliance on pure freighter aircraft due to the pandemic. Rickenbacker International Airport wasn’t one of them. 

It suffered a 7.7% contraction in throughput that officials attribute to shifting supply chain dynamics and market vagaries. But 2020 also brought new customers, commodities and opportunities that have positioned the central Ohio airport for strong growth this year and beyond.

2020 was a year of big swings for Rickenbacker Airport (LCK), which is located outside Columbus in the middle of a huge logistics cluster dotted with distribution centers for Crate & Barrel, Amazon, Lululemon, Gap and other big brands.

Traffic was light at the start of the year, a carryover from a weak airfreight market in 2019 and trade tensions with China. Flights dried up at the beginning of the pandemic as factories overseas shut down and then U.S. stores closed, which had an outsized effect because the cargo-centric airport is a retail-heavy destination. Cargo spiked in May, and set a record in June, as the former Air Force base began receiving imports of personal protective equipment and other supplies to help combat the COVID outbreak.

The airport experienced a short lull in the fall and then a large jump in traffic in the run-up to the holidays as factory and ocean-shipping backlogs led many shippers to switch to air. A decline in FedEx and UPS air tonnage also contributed to volume declining to 120,000 metric tons, said Sarah McQuaide, communications and marketing manager at the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.

Despite the slow start, international all-cargo arrivals increased 4% to 997, including 309 777-300 Extended Range passenger planes with cargo in the cabin operated by carriers such as Emirates. The emergency use of passenger aircraft as mini-freighters was a two-edged sword for Rickenbacker and partially explains why more flights resulted in less cargo volume.

McQuaide said some freighter operators redeployed their freighter aircraft on more urgent global routes for pandemic relief, but those were backfilled by the modified passenger aircraft LCK is receiving. 

The removal from service of most long-haul widebody flights was necessary for airlines to survive when travel demand tanked, but they repurposed a portion of their fleets for cargo when tight capacity sent freight rates through the roof. The move helped airlines financially and shippers gained access to more transport options. Although pure freighters can carry significantly more cargo than jets in passenger configuration, using the cabin for light boxes, including in some cases with seats removed, increased payloads per flight.

Airlines that began flying to Rickenbacker for the first time were Korean Air Cargo, Philippine Airlines and Qatar Airways, McQuaide said in an email.

Another positive development for the airport was a more diversified product mix, with many new electronics and auto parts shippers leading the way. Several new logistics companies also chartered aircraft to bring goods to LCK.

“The first few months of 2021 are looking very favorable compared to 2020,” McQuaide said.

Pharma facility

The airport authority also is diversifying into pharmaceuticals. On Wednesday, officials announced plans to develop a $1.5 million pharmaceutical cold-storage facility with help from a JobsOhio grant.

The grant will help support the redevelopment of existing air cargo terminal space into a two-zone temperature-controlled facility (refrigeration at 35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for vaccines, therapeutics and other life-science products for which there is increased demand. The 9,600-square-foot warehouse, which will include office space for U.S. Customs and Food and Drug Administration inspectors, will be the first dedicated handling facility for temperature-controlled pharmaceutical air cargo shipments in Ohio.

McQuaide said LCK handles some drugs shipped in active refrigerated containers, as well as products that don’t require cold storage.

“The new facility will allow us to expand this line of business and open up new opportunities for the airlines and forwarders serving the pharma industry,” she said.

It is expected to open in the third quarter.

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 and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. 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]