The new growth engine for airports: cargo

A worker at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International unloads cargo that's just come from the belly of a Lufthansa jumbo jet. The non-descript boxes can hide anything from clothing to cases of French wine.

Cargo comes in all shapes and sizes. And sometimes, it's alive. This pup braved an eight hour flight from Germany to Atlanta.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport holds the honor of “world’s busiest” when it comes to passengers. But it doesn’t crack the top 30 in terms of cargo; something Louisville, Anchorage, and Indianapolis all do.

Airport officials, and even Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, want to change that. But it’s not necessarily an easy proposition. Nor is it a sexy one, admits Ilona Zimmer, a coordinator for Lufthansa Cargo.

Inside the German airline’s cargo warehouse at Hartsfield-Jackson, Zimmer watches as a pair of forklifts lift pallets onto storage shelves. 

“I would say machinery parts and, at the moment, textiles, make up the majority of shipments coming in," Zimmer says.

Come fall, Zimmer says case after case of French Beaujolais will take up most shelf space.   

Activity inside the warehouse is constant, but Hartsfield Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell wants to see more. Lots more.

“We have some work to do,” he admits.  

The traditional cargo market is stagnant, so the airport is building facilities to go after a different sector. Their interested in perishable goods, like pharmaceuticals and fresh flowers. That will help revenues.

But Southwell says all the focus on cargo is really about employment.  

“The main purpose of an airport is to be any community’s chief jobs driver,” he says. “That’s why an airport exists.”

But airports are limited in what they can do to attract new cargo, says Enno Osinga. He’s in charge of cargo operations at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, and Vice Chair of Vice-Chair of The International Air Cargo Association.

“An airport, if you look at it unkindly, is a bit of concrete. It’s got runways. It’s got aprons,” Osinga says. “They’re all the same.”

The key to bolstering cargo operations, Osinga says, is to convince industry to build nearby.

Atlanta’s doing that.

It’s also constructing more cargo warehouses on-site.

And to sweeten the pot further, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is offering a few million dollars in incentives for new cargo service. 

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

Cargo comes in all shapes and sizes. And sometimes, it's alive. This pup braved an eight hour flight from Germany to Atlanta.

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