Inside The Rapid Growth Of US Cargo Hub Airports

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rise in cargo-focused hub airports, such as Chicago’s Rockford, Wilmington’s Air Park, and Boeing Field/King Co. airports, across the United States. According to a statement released by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, tonnage at cargo-focused hub airports grew 31.4% from 2019 to 2020.

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Cargo airlines and airports across the United States have grown despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Getty Images

What’s a cargo-focused hub airport?

Most airports rely on passenger traffic to grow, but a few out there don’t. Cargo-focused hub airports usually have extensive cargo traffic but little or no passenger traffic.

For instance, these hubs receive at least 20 million pounds of domestic air cargo annually and fewer than 310,000 passengers. Being under the 310,000 threshold means these hubs are not even ranked in the top 200 commercial airports in the United States.

In the United States, 14 airports meet this definition by the Chaddick Institute. The largest of these are Illinois’s Chicago Rockford International, Texas’s Ft. Worth Alliance, Ohio’s Wilmington Air Park, and Washington’s Boeing Field/King Co. International.

At this moment, Chicago Rockford handles more domestic cargo than some prominent commercial hubs such as Seattle-Tacoma International. In 2020, Rockford received 841 million tons of national cargo.

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Amazon, the new kid on the block, led to immense growth in some airports, like Wilmington. Photo: Getty Images

Hubs for UPS, FedEx, and Amazon

Not surprisingly, the largest operators in these cargo hub airports are cargo airlines. Companies such as UPS, Amazon, and FedEx use them as their main bases to carry goods all around the United States.

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Jointly, both cargo airlines and airports are growing fast despite the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Amazon Air, which started in 2015, is already a global leader in e-commerce. The new giant hopes to have a 200 aircraft fleet by 2028, expanding throughout the US and abroad.

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Substantial growth in 2020

The rapid growth of cargo-focused hubs stems from various factors, said the investigators at the Chaddick Institute. Some of these factors include the growing ease and decreased cost of at-home package delivery and a dramatic shift in consumer behavior as a result of the pandemic.

Between 2019 and 2020, half of the ten largest cargo-focused hub airports grew by 25% or more. For example, Wilmington Air Park, the third most important cargo airport, grew by an impressive 288.5% in one year!

Amazon Air is responsible for Wilmington’s growth after investing heavily and establishing it as its fifth hub.

Among the ten cargo-focused hubs with the most traffic, only two saw a drop in 2020. These are Boeing Field/King Co. and Stockton Metropolitan.

These hubs are performing better than the average airport. In 2020, COVID-19 wiped out nearly US$125 billion in airport revenue, according to the Airport Council International (ACI).

In 2020, COVID-19 wiped out US$125 billion in airport revenues worldwide. Photo: Getty Images.

The best —and worst— it’s yet to come

The Chaddick Institute expects that the cargo airport industry will continue to grow in 2021. The changes in the online retailer industry have led to fast growth for the cargo-focused hub airports.

Nevertheless, this growth carries profound social, economic, and environmental effects, said the investigators.

For instance, there’s an increase in the environmental footprint. The investigators noted,

“The greenhouse gases from additional flight and truck activity supporting the delivery of packages to homes and businesses have been shown to offset the gains resulting from less personal vehicle use.”

The Chaddick Institute recommends the growing use of sustainable jet fuels and electric vehicles to tackle this issue.

How big of growth do you expect to see from cargo airports this year? Let us know in the comments.

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