Watch Now

Rockford airport prepares next cargo expansion as Menzies moves in

Arrival of global ground handler gives freighter operators more service options

Freighter and cargo-only passenger aircraft sit parked at Chicago Rockford International Airport’s south cargo zone. (Photo: Greater Rockford Airport Authority)

Chicago Rockford International Airport on Wednesday announced that Menzies Aviation, a major provider of airport ground services around the world, will operate a new 50,000-square-foot cargo terminal that further enhances its growing appeal as a cargo alternative to nearby Chicago O’Hare airport.

Rockford, part of a new breed of cargo-focused airports capturing business from disaffected freight forwarders at international passenger gateways, isn’t stopping there. It plans to handle even more freighter aircraft by mid-decade with a fourth cargo facility. Meanwhile, construction on a new taxiway and fuel farm are expected to begin this year, which will increase operating efficiency and resiliency.

Located about an hour’s drive west of O’Hare, Chicago Rockford (RFD) is home to the second-largest UPS (NYSE: UPS) air hub in North America and a regional Amazon Air (NASDAQ: AMZN) hub. Cargo airlines that frequent the airport include Atlas Air, Emirates, Korean Air, National Airlines and Silk Way West Airlines. Aggressive infrastructure investment — more than $200 million over eight years — and crowding at Chicago O’Hare has led to rapid growth in e-commerce and international freight.

Cargo volume by landed weight increased 25% in 2021, vaulting Rockford to the 14th-largest cargo airport in the U.S., up from 19th largest in 2019, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Under a 10-year lease that commences June 1, Menzies will provide cargo service to chartered and scheduled flights, including aircraft transfers and processing for logistics companies. The facility includes a temperature-controlled storage area for pharmaceuticals.

Adding a large air cargo handler makes RFD more attractive to potential airline and logistics customers by giving them a choice between two service providers. 

“We’re extremely happy to have a global ground service agent on the airfield now that gives us a competitive environment and offers carriers the opportunity to have a selection when they come to Rockford,” Zack Oakley, deputy director of operations and planning, told FreightWaves.

Supply chain challenges delayed the opening of the new cargo center that Menzies will occupy. Officials had hoped to complete construction late last year, but building contractors had to wait for heating and cooling equipment because of production issues associated with steel and other components, Ken Ryan, director of business development for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, said during an interview in November.

The building is essentially complete and Menzies will have early access for setting up on April 1, officials said.

Menzies is a global provider of airport ground, fueling and cargo services at more than 250 airports around the world. In 2022 it was acquired by Agility, a Kuwait-based operator of logistics parks and infrastructure developer. Menzies last week acquired AJAS Ltd., a privately owned company that provides ramp, passenger and cargo handling services for several airlines at airports in Jamaica.

The airport services provider said it will hire about 60 to 70 people to run the RFD cargo warehouse and support aircraft. It will also purchase mostly electric ground equipment. 

Cargo-friendly airports

Several second-tier airports have gained favor with cargo airlines and logistics companies chartering their own aircraft, especially during the pandemic when big airports were oversaturated with freighters, because they treat cargo as the top customer. In many cases it can take days for importers utilizing major passenger gateways like O’Hare and New York’s JFK to retrieve their shipments.

Good infrastructure, customer service, longer operating hours, priority clearance from customs authorities and proximity to warehouse parks make it easier to pick up and deliver shipments at second-tier airports, freight transportation specialists say. At smaller airports, large freight forwarders can lease airside cargo terminals, giving them direct control over their freight compared to using a third party for disassembling and preparing loads for pick up. Further incentive comes in the form of lower airport fees and less road congestion. 

Airports in this group, besides Chicago Rockford, include Columbus, Ohio’s Rickenbacker; Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky; and Greenville-Spartanburg airport in South Carolina.

Menzies cited RFD’s size, location and eagerness to facilitate cargo operations as reasons for selecting the airport. 

The land side of Chicago Rockford’s new air cargo warehouse, which will be operated by Menzies Aviation. (Photo: Greater Rockford Airport Authority)

“Despite the current cyclical downturn in cargo volume, we see secondary airports becoming more attractive due to less congestion, lower costs and great surrounding infrastructure, which will expedite goods getting from airport to final destination,” said Robert Fordree, executive vice president cargo at Menzies Aviation, in a news release. “We are confident that, in partnership with RFD, we will attract scheduled freighters and specialized cargo to be handled safely, efficiently and with the required certified standards applied.” 

In the past two years, RFD has erected two cargo buildings with 190,000 square feet of space and parking positions for up to six Boeing 747-8 freighters. Maersk Air Cargo is subleasing a 60,000-square-foot section, acquired as part of its recent acquisition of German forwarder Senator International. Another large forwarder, DB Schenker, occupies 50,000 square feet to support its controlled fleet of charter aircraft. The remaining space is managed by local ground handler Emery Air for an assortment of tenants, including large European forwarder DSV. 

The fourth phase of Rockford’s expansion will eventually deliver up to 1 million square feet of facilities, plus aircraft positions, for cargo operations. Ryan said the initial buildout will probably cover 200,000 to 400,000 square feet and that several logistics providers have already shown interest in leasing space.

Oakley said moving from concept to building design is on hold as the airport authority waits for the air cargo market to recover from the current downturn tied to the slowdown in the global economy. Some analysts expect air and ocean trade volumes to pick up again in the second half of the year or 2024, depending on the course of inflation and retail inventory corrections. Construction is estimated to take 18 to 24 months.

Meanwhile, construction will start in the spring on a new 4,267-foot taxiway to increase access to the south cargo area directly from the runway. The additional taxiway will ensure extra-large widebody aircraft, such as 747-8s, can pass simultaneously without having to stop to give the right-of-way. 

The airport authority last fall received a $6.8 million grant for the project from the FAA, with a second tranche of grant money expected this fiscal year. Oakley said the taxiway could open by the fall. 

It’s only five minutes from wheels down to engine off when you land at Rockford,” Ryan said. “That is a huge impact for wear and tear on the engines, fuel burn and carbon emissions.” 

Oakley added that airlines can save nearly an hour of operating time — 25 minutes or more in taxiing each direction — at Rockford compared to a large airport like O’Hare. The difference in carbon dioxide emissions for a single inbound or outbound movement for a 747-400 can be 20 tons, officials said.

RFD last year also announced a partnership with Kale Logistics Solutions to implement an airport cargo community system to facilitate faster data exchange and improve efficiency of truck transfers and other tasks. 

Fuel farm

Officials last week opened a temporary fuel storage area, consisting of four connected containers with bladders that can hold 70,000 gallons of jet fuel, in the south cargo zone. Meanwhile, construction is expected to start this summer on a permanent fuel farm on the north end of the airport, adjacent to UPS’ dedicated fuel facility, that will have 500,000 to 1 million gallons of pipeline-connected storage, Oakley said. The project is estimated to cost $2 million to $3 million.

Currently planes in the midfield are refueled by tanker trucks. The goal is to build a pipeline under the tarmac in six or seven years so ramp workers can refuel aircraft with fixed hydrants.

Existing storage areas around the airport, which also serves passenger airlines, can hold about 100,000 gallons. Relying on constant tankering at an airport that consumes up to 50 million gallons per year increases the risk for weather and other disruptions.

More FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

Subscribe to the American Shipper Air newsletter.


Fed up with cargo congestion, freight forwarders flee O’Hare airport

Rockford rocket: Cargo business blasts off at Chicagoland airport

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. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric 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. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]