By Michael A. Hodges & Randy Bisgard, Airport Business Solutions
January/ February 2001
The state of air freight and where it's headed
global cargo industry has been growing at record rates,
demonstrating a 6.2 percent increase in 1999, while
domestic air cargo has grown at an average annual rate
of over 7 percent for the past ten years. Since 1970,
the global air cargo industry has grown at a rate 2.5
times the growth rate of the world's Gross Domestic
Product (GDP). In 2000, it continued to expand, with
growth exceeding most expectations.
Currently, over 20 percent of all commerce transits international borders. Within the next 20 years this is projected to reach nearly 80 percent. Competition for jobs and industry has been increasing across borders, which has had direct positive impact on the flow of air freight. With the growing impatience among consumers in the marketplace, air transportation is becoming an important alternative to long-distance shipping. Exports of just in time commodities and high tech electronics has spawned rapid growth at several airports.
Another important factor in this growth is the explosion in e-commerce. The Internet has changed the way the world does business, allowing diverse opportunities for businesses to communicate and conduct transactions with other businesses and the end consumer.
Also, the realization by many of the world's leading air carriers that air cargo is a viable revenue resource has been a driving force behind growth. Air cargo is estimated to account for 13 percent of revenue of passenger airlines.
Cargo growth is being experienced at virtually every airport worldwide, but the top 30 airports handle 59 percent of all air cargo volumes. The U.S. is the most developed air cargo market, leading the world with 60 percent of all air freight moving to, from, or through it. The U.S. includes three of the top five cargo airports in the world (Memphis, LAX, and JFK), and five of the top ten (Miami and Anchorage).
However, the U.S. is not the largest true air freight market because of the trucking component. Intra-Asia, which includes shipments within Asia, the South Pacific, and India, is considered the largest true air freight market.
In the U.S., integrated carriers (FedEx, UPS, DHL, Emery, BAX Global, etc.) account for slightly more than two-thirds of total cargo tonnage, while passenger airlines and air-oriented trucking companies carry the balance. It's projected that the airlines will continue to experience positive traffic growth, but will steadily lose market share to the FedEx's and UPS's of the world due to the latters' ability to more readily modify their business practices and operations in response to customer demands.
On-airport freight facilities consist of warehouse space and, in certain cases, adjacent office space. This is where airlines, integrated air carriers, third-party air cargo handlers, and freight forwarders receive, prepare, consolidate, and dispatch air freight shipments. The most desirable facilities have direct access to the aircraft parking ramps in order to minimize the potential for delay or mishandling in loading and unloading freighter aircraft, as well as the time and money lost in the transport of freight between aircraft and warehouse facility. For most carriers, direct ramp access is considered critical because of the time-sensitive nature of cargo.
Most air freight facilities consist of large open spaces for warehouse operations and build-out space for administrative functions. The rule-of-thumb ratio of total space to throughput is one square foot per ton of freight handled, although the ratio varies considerably from carrier to carrier. Demand for air freight facility space is a function of traffic and warehouse productivity levels.
Traffic demand is a function of a carrier's flight schedule, capacity allocated to the airport, and market share, while warehouse productivity is affected by the type of freight carried and the level of material handling automation. Heavier shipments typically require manual handling, and consequently demand more warehouse space.
While many airports tend to locate cargo facilities far removed from terminal facilities, at many larger airports it's important that the facilities are situated as close as possible. At most hub airports, the majority of cargo is "belly freight/belly cargo" - cargo carried in the belly of a passenger aircraft. At airports with significant restraints on landing slots and land area, belly freight typically dominates cargo carried by all-cargo airlines. In fact, two-thirds of all cargo at JFK in New York is belly freight, while 81 percent is belly cargo at San Francisco. Miami is the exception to the general rule with 75 percent of cargo transported by all-cargo aircraft - including a large number of 747s arriving from South America loaded with fresh cut flowers and produce.
The general dominance of belly cargo could become even more significant as Boeing and Airbus continue development of their "super jumbo" fleet, which may offer even more belly cargo space to the airlines. As such, with the exception of those airports dominated by FedEx, UPS. or other integrated carriers, the trend of locating new cargo facilities in reasonably close proximity to the terminal area will likely continue.
At many airports throughout the U.S., existing on-airport cargo facilities are insufficient to keep up with demand, development land is limited, and/or the demolition and redevelopment of existing facilities cannot be completed in a reasonable timeframe. As a result, in many cases demand for cargo space is being met by off-airport facilities. In these cases, cargo is off-loaded from aircraft and then tugged/trucked to an off-airport location for sorting, distribution, or pallet breakdown and/or build-up.
While most of the time these facilities offer a much lower rental rate than off-airport facilities, this is often offset by the additional time and costs associated with freight transfer, including additional liability associated with this extra cargo transfer. As such, the net cost may actually equal or exceed the cost of operating on-airport. In addition, many carriers are apprehensive about this additional step of off-airport transfer, and will not utilize those operators unless cost savings are significant.
The trend in recent years has been that every time the military has looked to close a former base, the floodgates have opened for communities and developers looking to turn the airport into the next Rickenbacker or Alliance Airport. And, with few exceptions, they foresee the ability to accomplish their goals at a much faster pace than is realistic.
A few problems are prevalent in the conversion of military bases into cargo airports:
1) Infrastructure. While most military bases offer expansive ramp areas, long and wide runways, and wide taxiways, many aren't equipped to handle the excessive weight of today's widebody aircraft. Existing hangar structures often don't offer the door height or clearspan to accommodate today's cargo handling automation systems and typical aircraft.
2) Air Carrier Support. Integrat-ed carriers such as FedEx and UPS are typically located at airports that also offer a reasonable volume of air carrier traffic. This is not only due to the infrastructure and amenities, but also to the fact that they rely on the air carriers in cases of maintenance delays, interconnecting freight, and excessive cargo volumes. Not every airport is suitable for a FedEx or UPS, as they primarily rely on such factors as population base, accessibility to primary roads and interstates, community support (noise), and availability of labor.
3) Fixed vs. Variable Costs. The primary difference between passenger airlines carrying belly cargo and the all-cargo airlines is that passenger airlines only have to cover variable costs associated with transporting freight, while all-cargo airlines have to cover all of the costs. Consequently, the costs associated with developing and operating an all-cargo airport must demonstrate such substantial cost savings over existing mixed-use airports to entice a switch from the status quo, which is difficult given the infrastructure issues which must often be addressed.
In areas such as Southern California, including Los Angeles and San Diego, the competition for cargo traffic is fierce, with such airports as Brown Field, El Toro, San Bernardino International, Southern California Logistics Airport, and March Air Force Base all competing for the same cargo traffic base as LAX, Ontario, Burbank, Orange County, and Lindbergh Field. Many times they are competing for the same airspace.
The biggest hurdle that will impact growth in air cargo is the one factor that is hurting all facets of the industry: the ever-growing problem of hiring and retaining quality employees. Whether providing their own handling or outsourcing to a cargo handler, cargo carriers face higher costs related to aircraft ground accidents, package mishandling, and workers' compensation claims.
The new computer-savvy generation of cargo handling personnel will require the development of high-tech approaches to interactive training. New incentives for increasing employee loyalty, such as UPS's educational assistance programs in Louisville, will be necessary to attract the employment base needed to meet the substantial growth anticipated.
Air cargo is expected to grow at a record pace over the next several years. FedEx and UPS will likely lead the way, followed closely by the airlines looking for ways to maximize profits without jeopardizing their loyal passenger base. To a limited degree, new larger aircraft will provide the lift necessary to meet the demand at airports with limited landing slot capacity. While every airport in the U.S. has the opportunity to share in the growth trend, more than likely the successful air carrier/cargo airports will continue to grow at a faster pace than those trying to get their piece of the pie.