Cargo clogs US airports as freighters proliferate

Big white 747 freigher with nose cone up to load cargo.

Snapshot: Cargo congestion is a big problem behind the scenes at some major U.S. airports. The coronavirus forced big industry changes that have exacerbated existing inefficiencies due to poor coordination and infrastructure.

  • Ground handlers are understaffed and big freighters are dumping cargo faster than they can process it.
  • The lack of passenger flights has changed the entire dynamic of cargo handling at airports.
  • New technologies are helping to improve communication among airliners, freight forwarders and trucking companies.

International passenger terminals may have little traffic, but at some airports there is so much cargo that frustrated businesses can wait days for medical supplies and other imports arriving on big all-cargo planes.

The unusually heavy cargo volume, driven by a surge in medical supplies to combat the coronavirus pandemic and e-commerce orders from homebound consumers, has exposed long-standing, systemic inefficiencies at major hubs in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

For airport handling agents, the coronavirus is a double-edged sword. More business is pouring in, but COVID health precautions, changes in normal cargo flows, staffing shortages and the added complexity of handling cargo-only passenger planes are combining to create operational havoc. Nearly all cargo terminals at these gateways are overwhelmed, although some are handling the situation better than others, airfreight professionals say. 

Freighter traffic, for example, is up as much as 50% at O’Hare International Airport, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

“There are terminals where it’s taking five to eight days for your cargo to get broken down. And then when it’s ready, you send your trucker in, and they’ve lost the cargo. They can’t find it anymore. It can be really, really challenging,” said Neel Jones Shah, the global head of airfreight at digital-powered freight forwarder Flexport. 

He declined to identify specific companies falling short of expectations, but a recent Flexport newsletter emailed to customers called out Swissport for long delays.

Ozgur Yildirum, Swissport’s O’Hare cargo manager, acknowledged to FreightWaves the company is “having a hard time” after volumes soared 80% since February. “We are handling over 25 million kilos of freight in our two warehouses. It’s a tremendous amount of cargo.”

The ground handling company serves 10 airlines at its airport warehouse and is receiving about 75 pure freighters each week, many of them unscheduled charters. Cargolux, for example, went from 15 to 26 freighters per week from China, Asiana from seven to 12, and China Cargo Airlines substantially increased frequencies. Swissport also loads and unloads planes at Amazon Air’s new building, with flights doubling to four per day at the end of May.

Although airfreight demand out of China has calmed substantially during recent weeks, presumably due to less need for urgent deliveries of personal protective equipment, U.S.-based terminal operators say they aren’t seeing a drop-off in medical supplies. 

Firehose of freighters

Logistics professionals say large airports were built to manage a mix of cargo from the bellies of passenger aircraft and freighters, but with international passenger traffic mostly suspended, freight is being dumped on warehouses all at once rather than arriving in smaller chunks via multiple, scheduled flights each day. Handling agents, who have built their business on belly freight, are either not busy or struggle to get shipments out the door.

The traffic shift has created confusion among freight forwarders and trucking companies accepting freight because it may go to a different agent than normally serves a specific airline. 

“Nobody knows where these charters are landing anymore” because an airline’s regular warehouse may be full and planes are being diverted to other providers, said Chuck Menini, director of information services at CargoSprint, a technology startup that is gaining traction at several major airports with payment and scheduling tools designed to speed up truck turn times.

“When that happens it disrupts everything because everyone is used to going to the same handling agent at these airlines. They wait in line to pick up and then realize it’s not at that building because the charter that brought it in is elsewhere,” he said.

Warehouse workloads have also increased because of new ways goods are being loaded on all-cargo aircraft and passenger planes rushed into service as mini-freighters in response to a shortage of cargo capacity.

More complexity

Large shippers typically tender whole pallets to freighter operators and widebody passenger carriers, but Yildirum said airlines have so much business now they arrange the shipments into smaller units themselves to make sure they utilize every inch of onboard space. 

“Now everything is loose, which means you have to touch every single piece” to unload, he said.

And many passenger airlines with so-called “preighters” are trying to maximize yields by storing boxes of face masks and other light products in the cabin, often on the seats and floor space and in overhead bins. All those loose items have to be carefully moved one by one through the narrow aisles and cabin doors, requiring extra time and manpower. Unloading techniques used by airlines and ground agents include “bucket brigades” to hand-pass boxes to the exit, or sliding in a manual, roller conveyor, and deploying catering trucks with lift capability to lower the boxes to the ground. 

It can take two to three hours to unload a passenger freighter with cargo in the cabin, compared to 20 minutes or so for planes with only palletized cargo, Yildirum said. Warehouse personnel then have to build skids and shrink wrap them for delivery.

Alliance Ground International, a national company with a large presence at O’Hare, has fine-tuned its processes and can now turn an auxiliary freighter with seat cargo in one hour and 40 minutes versus three hours when those flights started in March, said Warren Jones, vice president of business development.

Many ground handlers are doing this extra work while short-staffed. They reduced their ranks because there was little passenger baggage to handle and fewer planes to refuel. Now, they are having difficulty calling people back, in part because of the $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits many out-of-work Americans are receiving as part of the government’s coronavirus rescue plan.

“We’re struggling to hire,” Yildirum admitted, adding that he still needs 150 workers to run the Amazon facility.

Dock workers “are making more money sitting at home,” making it difficult to convince them to return to work, Menini observed.

Warehouse operations are also taking longer because personnel are adhering to social distancing policies, according to industry specialists.

Industry managers say few ground handlers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are immune to the congestion issues, but Flexport’s Jones Shah said there are performance differences and they influence the company’s spending decisions.

“There are a number of them that are doing a great job with destination-side handling. No issues whatsoever,” he said. “But there are pockets of extreme incompetence on the ground handling side at all of these airports. We give the airlines who are using them a very hard time and impress on them to improve the performance of their vendors. 

“We also do it with our pocketbook. We will steer cargo away from airlines that are using poor-performing ground handlers and reward airlines that actually perform really well on the ground.”

Merit Tremper, president of Merit Trade Consulting Services, complained that import collection is difficult at O’Hare. “I’ve had over 40 shipments in the last two months, all PPE, and nothing is available in less than three to four days after it lands. Swissport is the worst.” Alliance seemed to be performing better than others until recently, she added.

Remote check-in

Alliance has improved efficiency and reduced truck queues since before the crisis by investing in CargoSprint’s system, Jones said. Drivers can use an app to input a consignment, get notified when it’s ready for pickup and make a reservation, rather than physically checking in at the front counter and waiting for the paperwork to be completed and the load retrieved.

Menini said that because CargoSprint also is a payment portal, it is one of the first parties to find out which warehouse is handling an aircraft and its cargo because airlines have to pay those fees before arrival. Forwarders and truckers can get the information by entering the master airway bill number.

CargoSprint also is helping with social distancing for coronavirus protection because the app  sends drivers a text message when their truck is ready to be loaded so they don’t sit around the warehouse waiting their turn, he added. The company notes that 20% of drivers are normally rejected because of paperwork or billing problems. They can avoid wasting time if those issues are ironed out before they arrive.

Over at Swissport, Yildirum expressed skepticism about reservation systems because truckers usually make multiple stops at the airport and scheduling them in a row would be difficult.

But, he added, the ground handler is turning the corner after outsourcing overflow work to a third-party warehouse and gradually rebuilding its staff.

 “We are doing our best,” he said.

Click here for more FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.

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