County needs to unveil answers to costly air cargo crunch
Miami-Dade is hustling to add air cargo capacity at a time demand is growing so fast that the county can’t keep up and is in danger of losing clients to other Florida cities.
The administration aims to double air cargo capacity in three to five years and says it is in talks to do so. The public should know with whom and about what.
As several worried commissioners told a committee last week, Miami International Airport is shy of cargo space and can’t wait for long-term answers such as adding land to compete with Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.
“Someone is out to eat our lunch,” said Commissioner Raquel Regalado.
The welcome air cargo boom is real. The International Air Transport Association last month estimated airlines’ cargo will grow 7.9% this year compared to pre-covid 2019 totals and 2022 demand will soar 13.2% above pre-pandemic levels. Airlines, hammered by the pandemic on the passenger side, generated $128 billion from cargo last year, a record.
Miami International, long the county’s top economic engine, carried a record 2.3 million cargo tons last year and is on pace to surpass it this year, new Aviation Director Ralph Cutié told the committee meeting. In a booming market, Miami International is first in the US in international freight, third in the US in total freight, and ninth globally in international freight, he said.
Because of the well-known congestion in supply chains globally that brings long delivery times, some businesses are turning to air freight to get needed goods more rapidly, at a premium that was 12.5 times that of container shipping before the pandemic but has fallen to three times, making air relatively more affordable.
So carriers seek more freight capacity that Miami doesn’t have. Airport tenants are fighting for 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot sites. Cargo airlines DHL and Atlas Air, and maybe others, have contacted individual commissioners for help.
Commissioner Jean Monestime said one carrier lured him to the airport to see the needs. As a businessman who sent air freight to Haiti and the Caribbean long ago, he said, he was disturbed by the state of current infrastructure – he found it the same after decades.
“If we could be number one with the, I would say, archaic nature of our cargo infrastructure,” he said, “I wonder how much more we could accomplish if it were more updated, if we were technology ready, if we had the right kind of infrastructure that we need.”
After that eye-opening visit, he suggested other commissioners take the same tour. He said he plans to go to airports nationally to see how they handle cargo.
Looking around is valid, but it might be better to await a report that Chief Operations Officer Jimmy Morales promised and to have top aviation officials or outside experts join in the fact-finding, because commissioners aren’t cargo experts. An impartial expert can point out what most of us would never see.
Mr. Morales, an ex-commissioner who had been Miami Beach city manager, said that within 90 days of rejoining the county he spotted the air cargo problem, and it is already a priority. He vowed to bring solutions to commissioners within two months.
He and others cited four ways to deal with the cargo crunch: improve technology, handle cargo more hours daily, go vertical on cargo buildings, and use air space – which might include over taxiways or over aircraft parking.
Ignore no ideas; creativity is vital to add capacity. Certainly we should be well past working only 9-5, which stifles growth.
Mr. Monestime also suggested reconsidering an Airport City expansion at Miami International that died a political death seven years ago with no signs it wouldn’t actually work.
County-owned auxiliary airports offer long-term options. But as Ms. Regalado pointed out, for a decade cargo growth aims pointed to these auxiliary sites bypassing Miami International, where the focus was to be passengers.
Then came the pandemic. Cargo carriers crying for capacity showed zero interest in subsidiary airports, though the county had “pitched, pitched, pitched” them on the idea, Ms. Regalado said.
Opa-locka Airport, long a cargo hope, is out of room; it’s too built-out by fixed-base operators. Mr. Cutié said.
To Ms. Regalado, that means ignore what won’t sell and focus on what will. To Mr. Monestime, it means upgrade Miami International cargo but keep small airports in the mix, maybe for specialized cargo.
Whatever potential solutions officials see, we should get them in less than 60 days. Miami-Dade learned in the pandemic that putting all of Miami International’s eggs in the basket of passenger travel leaves us highly vulnerable to more upheavals.
As Ms. Regalado pointed out, “right now everyone is having supply chain issues.” If an end is in sight, it’s a year away. New freight leases need to come fast.
Typical cargo leases last three to five years, Mr. Morales said. Lost freight leases will be gone a long time. If we can show that cargo capacity will double soon, we can keep and add tenants.
Is such a rapid capacity leap possible? Said Mr. Morales, “We are already talking with folks that can achieve that.”