Air Cargo Construction Is Booming, Thanks to Amazon

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At Chicago Rockford International, plans are underway to build a 90,000-square-foot cargo facility. As soon as it opens in the spring, the airport will start another 100,000-square-foot cargo project for DB Schenker, Emery Air and Senator International. Last year, Rockford completed a $22.3 million, 192,000-square-foot facility for Amazon, along with $14 million in concrete aprons sturdy enough for Boeing 747 aircraft.

“The traffic in cargo is responsible for all the new demand at airports now,” said Rex J. Edwards, an industry analyst and vice president of the Campbell-Hill Aviation Group, a Northern Virginia consulting firm. “The cargo carriers want more airport space. They need room to park planes and facilities that meet next-day delivery requirements. That is the evolution of the business now.”

Before the pandemic, e-commerce sales were growing more than 10 percent annually, pushing total air cargo to 12 million tons last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a unit of the Transportation Department. Federal analysts project that air cargo will reach 45 million tons annually by midcentury. But executives at big air shippers, airports and airplane manufacturers say that the pandemic altered online commerce so substantially that the industry will hit that mark a decade sooner.

Three years ago, Philadelphia International Airport paid $54.5 million for 135 undeveloped acres next to the airfield. The airport is now developing a master plan for the ground that includes 1.5 million square feet of cargo handling facilities. “We knew, prepandemic, that cargo was only going to increase,” said Stephanie Wear, the airport’s director of air service development and cargo services.

For the time being, Amazon is the largest influence in new airport cargo construction.

To serve the 14 immense fulfillment centers it built in California near San Bernardino and Riverside, Amazon established a western hub at San Bernardino International Airport. This month, it is finishing a 658,000-square-foot handling and sorting center and two smaller 25,000-square-foot buildings at the 79-year-old airport, which started as a World War II military airfield. The $300 million project includes parking and gates to handle 14 aircraft and 26 flights daily, said Mark Gibbs, the airport’s director of aviation.

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