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"In Search of the Elusive 'Aerotropolis'"
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Rockford's 'Aerotropolis' starts with courtship of cargo flights
BY SCOTT MORGAN
The Rockford (IL) Register Star
ROCKFORD - The $360 million plan for a community of commerce at Lambert-St.
Louis International Airport based on Chinese cargo didn't fly.
This fall, anyway.
St. Louis backers of Aerotropolis, a term describing global cities built
around airports, much like major cities that developed beside rivers and
ports, say they haven't given up.
When they regroup they will find airports from Pittsburgh to Denver, with
Rockford in between, trying to do much the same thing: Use airports to
stimulate regional economic growth in and around the airport.
But as they found out in St. Louis, international cargo development is
neither quick nor easy. International airlines and the business
infrastructure they need to move cargo around the world are entrenched at
major airports. Logistics companies are hard to lure away from core markets.
St. Louis officials spent years courting Chinese airlines, but couldn't move
beyond political hurdles in Missouri, which decided not to fund the plan
built on luring airlines and logistics companies with tax credits.
Chicago Rockford International Airport has spent four years trying to get
regular cargo service, promising cost savings and easy access to Chicago's
logistics community near O'Hare International Airport via Interstate 90.
Sporadic test flights have been used to validate marketing claims, but
regular cargo service remains elusive.
Efforts continue. Last week in Miami, representatives from several U.S.
airports, including Rockford, attended Air Cargos Americas Conference, to
make deeper connections with the cargo airlines and logistics companies that
could reshape their airport's future.
Cece Poister, manager of cargo development at Pittsburgh International
Airport, said she was in Miami to meet with Latin American airlines. Nearly
all of them now land in Miami with perishable goods and flowers that are
then trucked throughout the East Coast.
"I'm trying to convince them it doesn't all have to fly through Miami," she
said by phone.
For now, it's a tough sale. Airlines don't want to move once they are set up
at an airport.
"But there will come a day, and let's put it this way: If you don't show up
at places like this, your chances are nil," she said.
Recruiting was complicated this year by an air cargo slump. The
International Air Transport Association says global air cargo shipments have
been flat for a year and fell 5 percent in September.
Cargo airlines are jittery. Dubai Aerospace Enterprise became the latest
airline to cancel orders for the 747-8, Boeing Co.'s new freighter. It
converted five orders to less expensive Boeing 777 models. Cathay Pacific
and other carriers have also canceled or changed orders.
Airports see this as short-term business matters. Their view is longer-term
and rosier. They believe international cargo development is a solid
long-term economic bet.
"Of all goods and services shipped to and from China, only 12 percent are on
Chinese carriers," said Richard Fleming, president of the regional Chamber
and Growth Association in St. Louis. "China has made strategic decisions to
make investment in aviation ... and take that number to 50 percent."
While St. Louis' Aerotropolis plan died in Missouri's legislature, China
Eastern flew twice to Lambert this fall, launching what was pitched as
weekly service. But it canceled three other flights because of low demand.
Meanwhile, Fleming says airports in Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati,
Denver and several in Ohio are pursuing Aerotropolis developments.
"The point I made to the (Missouri) Legislature is that we're not operating
in a void," Fleming said. "The new mayor of Denver has made a point of
describing Aerotropolis as the centerpiece of economic strategy and is
pursuing cargo at Denver International."
Denver International is the nation's 20th largest cargo airport, according
to the Federal Aviation Administration. Rockford is 24th.
Growth in Denver may not have an effect here. Most cargo flies to airports
that are within a day's truck drive of the cargo's final destination.
Airport developments in Indianapolis or Detroit would be more likely to
affect Rockford because of their proximity to Chicago.
Indianapolis International adopted a 30-year Aerotropolis plan in February.
It is already a global cargo beast, ranking sixth in cargo volume behind
O'Hare, which is fifth.
The Indianapolis airport is attractive because it has access to four
Interstate highways and boasts that 75 percent of all U.S businesses are
within a one-day truck drive.
O'Hare has similar logistics advantages, with I-90, I-94, I-55, I-57 and
I-88 and I-80. That's difficult for other cities to compete with.
"There is a lot of cargo that comes to the Detroit metropolitan area right
now, to America's manufacturing base, that's brought into Chicago," said
Scott Wintner, spokesman for Wayne County Airport Authority, which operates
Detroit International and Willow Run airports. "It's brought here by truck
Detroit International is 38th nationally in cargo volume. It doesn't have
dedicated cargo carriers. Its cargo comes in the bellies of passenger
airliners, something it would like to change.
"China is the big fish right now," Wintner said. "There is a lot of evidence
that Russia and India will be strong markets."
Wintner said dedicated cargo carriers make for stronger airports because
they result in more flights and revenue for airports.
"Cargo flights are great because the more you have, the more operations you
have," he said. "They're larger planes. Larger planes mean more fees."
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