On Sunday night, it finally landed, the first ever international cargo shipment into MidAmerica Airport.
The arriving DC-10 was full of giant pallets, each stacked with 2,200 pounds of seed corn from Chile.
"Last night, we became an international airport," MidAmerica Airport Director Tim Cantwell said Monday.
The flight was two years in the making. That much time has passed since a $7 million cargo terminal at the long-struggling St. Clair County airfield was finished and airport officials decided to focus on the growing air freight business rather than its foundering passenger service.
In January, MidAmerica won port designation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
And finally, at about 8:50 p.m. Sunday, the first foreign flight arrived.
The DC-10 was inspected by customs officials, off-loaded by the ground crew and sent back to Panama for a second load of the corn, grown in Chile and brought north in a hurry for the spring planting season.
The second flight landed Monday, just before 1 p.m. Seven more trips are scheduled before the week is out, carrying 1.4 million pounds of seed corn in all. The seed corn is destined for Monsanto Co. facilities around the Midwest, where it will be meted out to farmers.
It is a one-time deal, and no additional international flights are scheduled. But Cantwell says he hopes the business will put MidAmerica on the radar screens of other cargo clients, with the goal of winning regularly scheduled service.
Last month, airport officials signed a deal with Indonesia to establish frequent cargo service with an airport there, though they're still negotiating with a cargo carrier to run the flights. Cantwell said he hopes those flights start by year's end.
Until this week, the county-owned airport's gleaming cargo facility has sat mostly empty, host to just a handful of domestic freight runs. But it could be a vital piece of the region's economy, said St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, generating jobs in manufacturing and air cargo. The corn shipments are just a start.
"You have to crawl before you can fly," Kern said. "Right now we're at the stage where we're proving ourselves."
But takeoff may prove tough, said Ned Laird, managing director of Air Cargo Management Group, a Seattle-based aviation consulting firm.
Lots of smaller airports are trying to break in to the cargo business, and MidAmerica isn't close enough to any major markets other than St. Louis.
"It's really tough to do when you're out in the middle of nowhere and you need to have all the same ground handling equipment as the major airports," he said.
But MidAmerica has good transportation links and low costs, Laird said. It could make air cargo work yet.
And that is what Cantwell was talking about Monday as he watched the giant pallets being unloaded from the plane.
"Nothing more is scheduled," he said. "But we've got phone calls out."
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