Is Cargo In JFK’s Future?

Call me a dreamer, but I believe that we can do a lot better job at making JFK a world class airport. Like an aging movie star, the airport still has the name, and still has its true believers, but facts are facts and data is data and all of these point to a slowly deteriorating situation, specifically, in cargo. Our cargo business has suffered the past ten years where our import/export volumes in tonnage have slipped to an extent that many airports have passed us on the total tonnage figures. Chicago’s O’Hare has moved from #19 in 2007 to #17, passing JFK cargo volumes as we have gone from #15 to #22. 

In addition, observers in the industry both in and out of JFK’s circle claim we have lost 20% of our cargo market share to airports not in the region, but airports that are as far as 800 miles away. The fear is this trend will continue and even escalate as competition is building and revamping their cargo facilities and extending their runway capacity. 

The Metropolitan Airport News will be reporting on this issue in two segments; the column in this month’s issue will be devoted to the cargo arena and focusses on road and airport congestion. The second column will cover the often proposed and never delivered one stop city to airport link and the need for an additional runway(s).  

The Port Authority is making an effort to correct the situation and intends to phase out the obsolete and underused cargo facilities and consolidate activities on the north side of the airport. Shawn McWhorter, president for the Americas at Nippon Cargo Airlines (NCA), said modern facilities were needed, but stressed that ramp space was also an issue.

“We have limited space when we park our 747-8 on the ramp,” he said.

NCA moved its US headquarters from JFK to Chicago and sold its cargo terminal to American Airlines, but it still runs three flights a week to New York. McWhorter emphasized the need for a strategy beyond the establishment of modern facilities.

“If you put a little oasis in the middle of the airport that you can’t get to, that’s of little help,” he said.

Approaching Kew Gardens on Van Wyck Expressway

None of these issues are easy to solve because JFK’s property extents are almost fully utilized today and it will take imagination, coordination from state, city officials and urban planners as well as tenants and the Port Authority. Most importantly, any effort of this scope has to involve the people of NYC and surrounding region. They need to be made aware of the need for the growth via expansion, and the economic and employment benefits for the city and region.  

Congestion Can Be A Deadly Ailment

There is a cartoon making the rounds of the net showing Dr. Emmitt, the Scientist in Back to the Future and played by Christopher Lloyd, sitting in his antique T Bird on a crowded highway and the word bubble says:” What; it’s 2050 and the Van Wyck is still not finished.” 

That comedic cartoon might have more than a grain of truth in it. I’ve been traveling the Van Wyck since 1995, and nothing has changed relative to time, distance, available lanes and signage. The only thing that has changed is where the work crews are working. If I was a real gadfly, I might ask; “In 23 years, what has been done?” This experience could be called – Congestion 101 – because the advanced courses come when you arrive at JFK Airport, especially if you are carrying freight. If you are a passenger driving your own car, then the challenge is twofold; the jam-packed and construction-disabled roadway which makes a 20-minute ride from the Triboro or Whitestone bridges become an hour, and reading the signage and changing lanes fast enough to even get into the airport. 

“The total volume of traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway is more than 170,000 vehicles per day”, said Robert Adams of NY States Department of Transportation. Adams added that during peak time, it takes a car traveling north on average 25 minutes to travel the 4.3-mile corridor from Kew Gardens to JFK Airport, and 27 minutes to travel south. That translates into an average speed of approximately 8 miles an hour. When there is no traffic, it takes an average of five minutes. 

One mile from JFK. Would you know it via signage?

But in the end, it’s a moot point because 2016 plans for an extra lane in each direction have been put on hold. 

For an airport that is the gateways to the U.S., and probably one of the best-known airports in the world, the route is not clearly signed, from the time you pass the intersection of the Van Wyck and Grand Central to the time you are on airport property; which is about a three to four-mile drive. You can end up on the Belt Parkway as easily as getting into the airport because those signs are large and there are a lot of them. 

If you are a truck driver, you know the routine by heart, but this does not make anything easier. A truck-driver has to perform extraordinarily because it is one obstacle after another, not caused by the inefficiency of the cargo people, but is a function of an old airport with 40-year old cargo facilities which are too small, not technically current, and with roads and parking areas that are not transport friendly.  

On the cargo side of the equation, the results are dreary. As an example, when a mid-sized airport in Ohio is now the desired destination of cargo carriers delivering clothing and other apparel, even when they await overland truck delivery all the way back to NY. That situation tells us that their time and expense problems are great enough that 350 miles of trucking expense is a better business decision than landing at JFK. Apparel is a New York business, it is NY’s famous rag trade on the west side, it is Macy’s and Saks and all the designer houses. This situation makes no sense; and makes you wonder about the future of our cargo businesses; if we in fact have a cargo business in the future.

The extra two lanes that never were.

At the recent meeting held in JFK Building 14 and hosted by Brandon Fried, President of the AirForwarders Association I witnessed something I have never seen before at any panel meeting; unanimous agreement by everyone in the room that the congestion is killing cargo throughput at JFK. 

The main points made at the meeting were as follows; getting into the airport via current road system is slow and unpredictable, cargo buildings do not have enough gates/portals to handle the trucks coming in, and trucks are backed-up causing slow turnaround and even cancelation of pick-ups, trucks are forced into restricted spaces and cannot back-up to leave, cargo buildings are old and storage space is inadequate, ( in addition, because the buildings are old, it is difficult if not impossible to retrofit to improve communications, or have connected networks. Some organizations have resorted to a hand-held, portable methodology of clearing cargo)

The feeling I get from cargo people is that their frustration is magnified by the loss of market share as mid-western airports “hijack” freight that used to be a regular visitor to JFK and now has moved to Cincinnati, Columbus, Northern Kentucky Airport, and Chicago. All of these airports and some smaller airports in the outer rings – Canton, Ohio comes to mind – are investing money and talent to make their airports cargo friendly. 

The cargo business is run like any other business; the baseline measurements are cost, time and efficiency. When these measurements falter, cargo executives look for alternatives. And amongst these alternatives is the cost and time savings connected with flying into midwestern hubs. Why are these “mid-sized-city” airports a desirable alternative to JFK? Landing costs are less, the time to extract freight from an aircraft, into a truck, and on the road is vastly better than JFK, and the route into the city center is not jam packed and costly. At JFK, a tractor trailer will pay $8.50 in tolls to get into the city. And as hard to believe as it first sounded to me, an airplane with freight landing in Ohio might have a similar time-span for its’ freight to reach the end user, as an airplane landing at JFK. 

As mentioned in the previous month’s article, even the bread and butter of New York commerce, the apparel industry, has pulled up stakes and left JFK for the Midwest.

There are some hopeful signs that JFK Airport is poised for a $132m investment to revive its flagging cargo business, after the governor of New York state gave his blessing to schemes to modernize freight facilities and improve aircraft access. Under an agreement between Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and cargo property developer Aeroterm, two old warehouses at the airport will be demolished to be replaced by a modern, 346,000 square ft cargo terminal in a $70m project.

A second development, with a $62m price tag, will “broaden, rehabilitate and realign” two taxiways to allow large freighter aircraft to access the cargo area.

For those cargo operations, logistics executives and decision makers that utilize JFK Airport unity is a must. They should work together with their industry associations and organizations such as the AirForwarders Association and the American Trucking Association to bring these issues to the table whenever politicos and airport operators are meeting. 

The Future Has Promise

Despite the recent declines at JFK, there is ample reason to believe that—with the right support—New York’s air cargo sector has significant potential for growth in the decades ahead. Air cargo movements in the United States and internationally are expected to grow at a significant clip over the next two decades. According to the 2017-2037 Aerospace Forecasts from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), air cargo movements in and out of U.S. airports are projected to increase at an average rate of 3.1 percent per year through 2037. Domestic cargo movements are forecast to increase at an average annual rate of 1.3 percent, while international cargo traffic—which is a particular strength for JFK—is forecast to grow an average of 3.8 percent annually.

If JFK could capture a proportional share of this growth, it would mean hundreds if not thousands of new middle-class jobs for New Yorkers. Air cargo is already a critical source of good jobs in the city. JFK’s air cargo industry sustains some 34,000 jobs citywide, both on-airport and in off-airport warehouses, distribution facilities, and regional suppliers, according to the Port Authority’s count. Of these, more than 15,000 jobs are at the airport itself.

The future does have promise, but only if we get our fair share of growth with a focus on the cargo industry and the facilities that support the industry at the airport.

Joseph Alba
Mr. Alba was previously Editor of the Airport Press for 12 years covering both local as well as global aviation news. Prior to this, Mr. Alba had Executive positions in Systems Engineering and Marketing with IBM World Trade, and had foreign assignments in the Far East and Latin America earning three Outstanding Achievement Awards. Mr. Alba also directed a new function dealing with Alternate Fuels for Public Service Electric & Gas company in New Jersey and founded a Natural Gas Vehicle Consortium consisting of car company executives and fleet owners, and NGV suppliers in New Jersey. Mr. Alba was a founding partner of ATA, an IT Consulting company which is still active in Central and South America. After leaving the armed forces, Mr. Alba’s initial employee was the U.S. Defense Department as an analyst.

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