As retailers halted international shipments due to COVID-19, cargo-dedicated airports like Rickenbacker International (LCK) in Columbus, Ohio, had to pivot quickly.
When the freight on shipping routes of Rickenbacker’s retail partners like Gap, Eddie Bauer and Lululemon dried up, a pipeline of charter flights began bringing in personal protective equipment (PPE). LCK was one of the very first airports that the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated to accept relief flights. At the same time, and potentially due to the ubiquitous shift to working from home, LCK also began seeing an uptick in items such as laptops and other electronics arriving in the wake of supply chain disruptions for those goods.
Shippers may not be familiar with the fact that Rickenbacker and the Columbus Region is a well-oiled logistics hub, but transportation providers and airfreight forwarders are becoming increasingly aware of this. It is also important to note that no air or ocean shipment is completed without trucking. The geography of Columbus itself makes it an ideal distribution point for reaching the majority of Americans and Canadians. In one day, a truck can deliver freight to half of the U.S. and one-third of the Canadian populations, as well as companies representing half of U.S. manufacturing capacity.
Rickenbacker has been averaging 30 flights a month out of Shanghai during the COVID-19 pandemic. For perspective, LCK used to see only one or two flights a year from Shanghai. Because of supply chain disruptions, air freight hubs like Hong Kong; Taipei, Taiwan; or Dubai, United Arab Emirates, haven’t been consolidating the types of freight normally seen arriving in Columbus. As companies find alternatives, this has produced an average flight per day, sometimes two or three to Rickenbacker out of Shanghai and other new origins like Hanoi.
“Our forte is turning freight from plane to truck and getting it on the road to its end user quickly,” said Bryan Schreiber, manager of air cargo and business development at the Columbus Regional Airport Authority (CRAA). “We have a very highly collaborative logistics ecosystem with great highway connectivity, and in addition to our freighter-dedicated airport, four rail intermodal terminals connect us to deepwater ports on both coasts. The region is built on speed and efficiency of the supply chain. You don’t hear about freight sitting in Columbus, Ohio.”
FedEx and UPS also operate at Rickenbacker, whose runways are 12,000 feet long – the longest in Ohio and some of the longest in the country. LCK’s infrastructure – and its airport abbreviation – harken back to its military history as the World War II Lockbourne Army Air Base prior to its becoming a civilian airport around 1980.
“I think there’s a lot of value in bringing airports such as Rickenbacker into the network to get a little more diversification in the United States,” said Evan Rosen, president of Americas region at EFL Global, a partner of CRAA. “When you go into the major gateways like Chicago, Atlanta, JFK and, LAX, you have a tremendous amount of congestion. It could take anywhere between 48 to 72 hours or even longer to get your freight picked up from time of landing. At Rickenbacker, we have freight off the plane, in our facility and broken down within six hours of wheels down.”
Because of COVID-19, major airports like Chicago O’Hare and JFK have been difficult hubs for cargo. Those facilities have suffered COVID-19 cases and have experienced 24-hour shutdowns, creating a nervous and inconsistent workforce. At Rickenbacker, EFL breaks down its own freight, which speeds its arrival at the distribution centers.
“WIth the amount of PPE products that we’ve been moving, and the need for these products to get to their destination and in the hands of the front-line workers as quickly as possible, Rickenbacker has been a real key. We’ve been dealing with the airports in Chicago, LA and New York that are extremely delayed and slow in their breakdown process.”
EFL Global has been a partner of CRAA for three years, but through other freight forwarders, Rosen has partnered with Rickenbacker for over 10. An $815 million freight-forwarding company, EFL does 65% of its business in air freight; the rest divided between ocean freight and related services. EFL’s 150,000-square-foot-facility in Columbus is within a mile of Rickenbacker International Airport.
“We have four flights per week on Emirates Airlines that come from Dubai into Rickenbacker, among other flights that we purchase space on from Hong Kong,” said Rosen. “So we are servicing quite a few markets on those flights into Rickenbacker for our customer base.”
Since a majority of EFL’s customers were retail-based, it has also had to handle PPE and other pharmaceutical supplies. Rosen said COVID-19 has made flexibility and diversification a requirement to survive.
To speak to flexibility and innovation in the air cargo space, just this week EFL again partnered with Emirates Airlines to bring a series of cargo flights aboard converted passenger aircraft from Dubai into Rickenbacker. That program is expected to grow to daily frequencies through June, and is in addition to the freighter flights already occurring.
“I’m hopeful that there’s some more flexibility from the customers out there to see the success of Rickenbacker,” said Rosen. “And hopefully we can choose other strategic airports to partner with to build additional hubs throughout the U.S.”