Under The Radar: Air Cargo At GA Airports

by Mike Maynard & Marc Cocanougher

Picture this – you operate an automotive parts manufacturing plant in Indiana. An automotive assembly plant needs additional product by tomorrow morning in Montgomery, Alabama or the assembly line shuts down. It is too far to truck the supplies. Air transport is your only option.

This scenario happens countless times across the U.S. and an entire logistics industry has arisen to meet the demand for “next-day” transportation of important documents and “just-in-time” delivery of important materials, critical parts and medical supplies.

Air cargo aircraft, and the airports that support them, are often depicted in the media as large cargo jets operating at major commercial service airports across the country. While the bulk of air cargo is transported in this manner, there are dozens of general aviation airports across the country used by “feeder” cargo aircraft on a scheduled basis for FedEx Express, DHL, and UPS, as well as contracted charter or ad hoc flights for specific industries. In fact, some businesses in the health care industry have their own fleet of single-engine and twin-engine piston aircraft. Many of these flights go unnoticed by the general public since most occur at night and early morning, but the general public would be affected if these flights did not occur.

To meet the demand, three types of carriers have evolved over the past several decades.

Hub-and-Spoke Air Cargo Operators

The typical mission for Part 135 and Part 121 cargo carriers using piston and turboprop aircraft is to retrieve packages and other cargo from smaller communities and fly them in late evening to a major airport where they are consolidated with freight from other markets and loaded aboard a cargo jet for a longer flight to a hub. Afterward, that process is reversed as cargo is then offloaded from a large freighter arriving before dawn from the sort center, to another airplane for delivery early in the morning to its ultimate destination, often a smaller community. In some cases the aircraft fly directly to the hub. While many of the airports that support this activity are commercial service, there are a number of supporting general aviation airports.

Warsaw Municipal Airport in Indiana provides a base of operations for a UPS feeder flight to the Louisville World Hub. UPS contracts with Air Cargo Carriers LLC to make the 1-hour and 10-minute flight from Warsaw to Louisville five nights a week in a Shorts 360 twin-engine turboprop. The flight aids UPS by avoiding the 4-hour 30-minute truck drive to the hub, that provides UPS customers later cut-off times for shipments. Warsaw is home to five prominent biomedical firms and has earned the moniker of “The Orthopedics Capital of the World.” Given the urgency of shipments related to orthopedic surgeries, it is not surprising that UPS bases an aircraft in the market.

It is not unusual for a single industry to create the demand to position an aircraft in a particular market. Industries that commonly use air cargo are businesses that regularly ship high-value, time-sensitive products, such as aerospace equipment, automotive parts, pharmaceutical, computers, cell phones and electronics, and high-end, seasonal apparel. General aviation airports located near distribution centers may also be utilized by the express industry.

The Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA) is a trade organization dedicated to meeting the policy, communications and information needs of on-demand cargo aircraft operators in the U.S. The organization has more than 50 FAA-certificated air carrier members, which fly some 800 aircraft per night in the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean. Stan Bernstein, President of RACCA, states: “Those 800 aircraft serve a lot of small town America getting that service, and most of those communities are unaware of how that package gets to them.”

Bruce Longacre is Director-East Region Operations at Ameriflight, one of the leading regional cargo contractors in the U.S. When it comes to cargo feeder operations at general aviation airports, Ameriflight has certain criteria they seek.

“We operate four types of turboprop cargo aircraft including the B99, EMB120, Metro III and B1900,” says Longacre. “As far as general aviation airports and infrastructure go, our criteria for selecting airports is based on approach minimums, and as far as how much ground support there is at an airport, we are flexible. In general, we need some type of airport weather reporting, either automated or observed.”

When it comes to ground handling, freight haulers like Ameriflight typically rely on fixed base operators (FBOs).

“We prefer an FBO because we want to have support for vehicle access, assist with load and off-load, fuel of course, and sometimes aircraft maintenance,” says Longacre.

General aviation airports that are Part 139 certificated provide an advantage to contract air carrier airports. “We would always prefer to operate at Part 139 airports that have some level of airport rescue and firefighting, and these would have FBO service as well, which goes hand-in-hand. If a shipper has 10 to 15 minutes in schedule flexibility, Ameriflight would prefer to operate at the nearest Part 139 airport.”

But that doesn’t prevent Ameriflight from operating at non-Part 139 airports. Ameriflight operates at general aviation airports throughout Nebraska, for example, including Hastings and Beatrice.

Longacre continues: “Ameriflight still relies heavily on land-based NAVAID equipment since, of our 200 aircraft, 80 or so have GPS capability. Most of the time that’s an ILS. The rest of the time is some type of precision approach with relatively decent minimums.

Ad Hoc Air Cargo Operators

With significant automotive manufacturing and vehicle assembly presence throughout the Midwest, it is not surprising to see the number of ad hoc carriers based in the region. Midwest-based ad hoc cargo carriers heavily involved in auto parts hauling include Royal Air Freight (Waterford Twp, MI), Priority Air Charter (Apple Creek, OH), Kalitta Charters (Ypsilanti, MI), and USA Jet Airlines (Belleville, MI). These ad hoc airlines operate aircraft ranging from twin-engine piston Cessna 310s, all the way up to DC-9s. According to Longacre, it is estimated that 75 percent of Ameriflight’s charters are related to the automotive industry.

Kalitta Charters commonly flies bulkier items on Falcon 20s from Willow Run Airport near Ypsilanti, Mich., to general aviation airports in proximity to automobile assembly plants, such as Hawkins Field near Nissan’s Vehicle Assembly Plant in Canton, Mississippi. Prior to the launch of a new automobile model, new tooling is required at the plant and often needs to be flown in along with other emergency components.

Carriers like Kalitta often prefer to use general aviation airports due to fuel costs, ease of ramp access, off/on-loading capabilities/equipment, and proximity to their customer. Ultimately, significant savings in time and money can be achieved by using general aviation airports, rather than larger and busier commercial airports. The security/gate access aspect of commercial service airports can be a limiting factor as well, as can ramp worker availability. Many times, FBOs at GA airports are on call 24 hours a day to serve emergency shipments.

Specialist Air Cargo Operators

Aircraft supporting the healthcare industry crisscross the country every night transporting medical specimens, medical devices, and tissues and organs.

Quest Diagnostics, a major provider of clinical laboratory services, is one of the most active specialty carriers in the industry, moving thousands of its laboratory samples every single day with its own fleet of aircraft. For example, one daily Quest (Pilatus PC-12) route originates from Spirit of St. Louis Airport and makes stops in Jackson, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Kansas City before returning to St. Louis. Many of these stops occur at general aviation airports, where handlers transfer specimen bags for transport to their requisite testing destination.

In an industry where lives are literally on the line, time is of the essence to Quest’s operation.

Quest considers a combination of factors when determining which airport to fly into, such as proximity to the consolidation point, and ease of access to the airport ramp. These items all factor into the most important factor – time – since the healthcare of many depend on cargo shipments, which are extremely time critical.

Ameriflight also provides specialty medical shipments focusing solely on nuclear medicine. Air transport is required since the half-life of these products is less than 24 hours. Radioactive-based imaging requires that diagnostic radioactive medicine be injected into cancer or cardiovascular patients during the imaging process prior to surgery.

Longacre explains: “Some facilities need it earlier so Ameriflight moves the material in early evening, gets it to its destination by midnight, such as Atlanta, and then that product is available at the hospital for procedures as early as 4 a.m. The surgeons can then do the imaging at 5 a.m. and perform surgery by 6 a.m.”

The Future

With an uptick in online purchases on websites like Amazon.com, carriers like Ameriflight are seeing increased demand to fly to more airports in small town America. According to Bernstein of RACCA, “The 800-pound gorilla in the room is Amazon.com, and we’re not quite sure what direction they are going to turn in.” In the fall of 2015, Amazon experimented with a scheduled charter operation using both wide-body jets and, as rumor has it, regional feeder aircraft. Rumor also has it that Amazon will decide in 2016 whether to build on this logistics model or continue to rely solely on contracted truck and air logistics providers.

So, while there is an increase in demand for regional cargo operations, there is a major bump ahead for the industry. “The biggest limitation to regional cargo carrier growth is the pilot shortage,” Bernstein emphasizes. One reason for the pilot shortage is a federal rule that took effect in August 2013. It increased the flight time needed to work as a copilot at a commercial airline from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. In the past, a new pilot could reach the necessary 250 hours through a year or less of giving flight instruction. Now, it takes more than three years of typical flight instructing to cross the higher threshold of 1,500 hours. That changes the dynamic of becoming a professional pilot.

“At the major airlines, we are seeing enormous numbers of retiring pilots and RACCA member carriers are seeing their pilots pulled into those vacant slots,” Bernstein said. “The thing that is so discouraging is that the FAA elected, per Congress, to change the pilot rules and training times to become a pilot for the airlines. As a result we are seeing a tremendous decrease in students entering flight schools. It used to be that flying a Caravan or a Shorts in the middle of the night carrying freight was an entry-level pilot position. For a number of our carriers, management pilots are flying, certain routes have had to been curtailed as a result of shortages, and the outlook is not bright because Capitol Hill is pretty well stuck where they are and they are not about to change any laws they have created. The $64,000 question is when a pilot graduates from college with 250 hours, how do they get to 1,500 hours?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Maynard is an Aviation Project Manager with CDM Smith, specializing in airport master plans, air cargo studies, economic impact analysis and airport system planning. Earlier in his career Maynard was a network planning and schedule analyst with DHL Worldwide Express.

Marc Cocanougher is an aviation planner with CDM Smith, specializing in airport master plans, system planning, economics and freight.

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