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Greenville Business Magazine

South Carolina’s airfreight industry is climbing steadily and ready to soar

Sep 05, 2018 10:26AM ● By John McCurry
By John McCurry

South Carolina airports are unlikely to ever rank among the top U.S. cargo centers. To be sure, those spots are occupied by major metropolitan airports, or cities where FedEx or UPS have established hubs, or by major international gateway airports.

For example, Memphis International Airport, located in the home city of FedEx, is the No. 1 U.S. airport for cargo by a wide margin.

While none of the state’s three largest airports rank in the top 50 for cargo, they are in the second 50, according to preliminary 2017 statistics compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Columbia Metropolitan is the state’s top cargo airport, ranked 60th in the country in terms of pounds of landed weight. That’s primarily due to a nearby regional UPS hub. Second, but moving up fast, is Greenville Spartanburg International Airport (GSP), which comes in at 72nd, but grew at a robust clip of nearly 39 percent last year. Charleston is 76th, and grew by 4.1 percent.

GSP’s growth over the past few years is the catalyst for construction of a new 110,000-square-foot cargo facility, due to open next spring.

GSP Growing Fast
Longtime industry observers believe the state is just starting to tap into its air cargo potential. Brandon Fried, executive director of The Airforwarders Association, a Washington, D.C. trade group, attributes the recent cargo volume increases to South Carolina’s efforts to create an accommodating business environment.

“South Carolina continues to attract automotive, technology, and aircraft manufacturing interests that serve as essential ingredients to its current economic recipe for success,” Fried says. “We are delighted to see GSP’s recent groundbreaking on a large cargo facility capable of continuing this exciting growth.”

Michael Hodges, a North Carolina-based aviation consultant, agrees.

“South Carolina is becoming a strong market, especially in the Greenville area, which is the strongest cargo market in the state right now.”

GSP’s cargo growth has been rapid, especially considering it began general cargo operations just seven years ago. Dedicated cargo flights, arranged by logistics firm Senator International, began in 2016 and have grown from two weekly flights to about 10 per week. BMW has driven much of the volume, but Bosch and Daimler are also using the opportunity to move freight by air to Europe.

“We’re going to be very competitive in cargo going forward with the amount of lift we have with 747-400s [freighters],” which can carry close to 100,000 tons of cargo each, says Dave Edwards, GSP president.

Could GSP add another dedicated cargo carrier in the coming years? Possibly, according to Edwards, who spoke with representatives of several cargo specialists during the Farnborough Air Show in England in July. Those discussions included CargoLogic Air, based in London; Russia-based Airbridge Cargo; and Qatar Airways Cargo, a division of the Doha, Qatar-based passenger airline. Another possibility could be Luxembourg-based Cargolux, which has operated a few charter flights into GSP during the past year.  Asked about that possibility, Cargolux spokeswoman Moa Sigurdardottir said, “As we are closely aligned with our customers, our driver to consider operations to any point would be based on their requirements and if business economics work.”

There’s also a chance that Emirates, which is providing lift for horses in the World Equestrian games this month, might not be a one-and-done at GSP.

“We are always trying to press for that additional service if it makes sense,” Edwards says. “Our hope is to add another carrier. The World Equestrian Games will be a test for us. Emirates will be flying horses in and out of the games. We hope to have an opportunity to discuss this with them.”

Edwards says GSP has a prime location in the Southeast in that very few other airports have cargo service to Europe. He also envisions the possibility of a cargo connection to Asia, to serve the large number of Japanese companies with Upstate operations.

Dulles, Va.-based Aviation Facilities Company is developing the single-story GSP cargo building, its first project in South Carolina. AFCO is a leading airport facilities firm with projects across the U.S. Haskell, a Jacksonville, Fla.-headquartered construction firm, is the builder. The two companies have collaborated on several projects.

A ramp will allow aircraft right up to the edge of the building, which is designed to serve multiple air cargo users. It will be expandable up to 150,000 square feet.

“The Greenville area is a strong market and has a strong manufacturing community,” says Steve Forrer, AFCO’s executive vice president and chief investment officer. “We are pleased to have this opportunity.”

Forrer says that barring weather delays, construction should take approximately 10 months.

While GSP doesn’t currently handle perishables—pharmaceuticals, fresh flowers, or produce—the new building will have provisions to accommodate such, if there is demand. It will include an area with the electrical requirements to run a cooler if one needs to be installed in the future. For example, that could happen if Senator International gets a contract involving products that require cold storage.

UPS Drives Columbia Cargo
Michael Gula, installed as executive director of Columbia Metropolitan Airport in May, believes the airport has a great opportunity to grow its cargo business. After a slight downturn in 2017, Gula expects cargo traffic to be up this year. Through July, the airport was up by 3.4 percent on the year, primarily due to UPS and FedEx shipments, and the Amazon fulfillment center a few miles away.

“I do feel that there is potential for international freighters coming in in the future,” Gula says. “It’s not something we’ve chased in the past, but it’s something we will be working on. With all of the suppliers to the aerospace and automotive industries in the state, there is a huge opportunity for us on the international side.”

Gula believes Columbia could be a future center of pharmaceutical air shipments if that sector continues to grow. His resume includes pharmaceutical shipping experience while he was manager of operations and cargo development for six years at Toledo Express Airport in Ohio. He says he hopes to meet with nearby Nephron Pharmaceuticals to discuss opportunities.

The airport operates a 54,000-square-foot cargo building. Gula says there is room to expand if cargo demand warrants, but he’s unsure when that might happen.

“We have the land, but we’re just not there yet. We’re working through a couple of economic development projects. It’s hard to say right now, since I’m still new in this position. I definitely feel there will be a need. There will be overflow from Atlanta at times.”

Charleston Fuels Up
Paul Campbell, executive director and CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, says air cargo has grown by more than 30 percent over the past five years. Manufacturing growth in the region is the primary driver of cargo growth. Mercedes, Volvo, Boeing, and Bosch are all adding to airfreight traffic, although Boeing brings in most of its needs on its own planes. The big express delivery firms are also seeing rapid growth.

“FedEx had one airplane coming in a day and now there are two,” Campbell notes. “They are loaded when they come in and pretty well loaded when they go out.”

Campbell believes DHL’s new international shipping facility, which opened this summer on Stall Road near the airport, will help fuel cargo growth. DHL says the facility, which serves the Charleston and Myrtle Beach areas, is needed to accommodate e-commerce growth.

Commercial airlines, many of which carry cargo in their bellies, are bringing in more freight, too. Some of that cargo is related to the growth of tourism. The current cargo facility, at slightly more than 20,000 square feet, is relatively small. While there are no current plans to build a new one, Campbell acknowledges that it is something that may be considered in the coming years.