Plans for cargo expansion at Pittsburgh International Airport received a major boost this week from a federal grant that will make the region even more competitive in a growing industry.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced an $18.69 million grant to support the construction of a 75,000-square-foot cargo processing facility and an adjacent surface parking lot to expand air cargo operations at PIT.
“This building is critical to building capacity and ensuring our future as a viable logistics alternative to the major congested gateways into the U.S.,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of Allegheny County Airport Authority.
Pittsburgh International Airport is on track for its busiest cargo year in at least the last six years, seeing about 5 percent growth through August with more than 106 million pounds of cargo passing through its facilities. If that trend holds, 2019 will eclipse last year’s mark of 156 million pounds.
“Cargo doesn’t talk back. The decisions about where freight goes really has a lot to do with the middlemen – the freight forwarders,” Cassotis said. “The freight forwarder market is looking for places where they can get products and goods off airports in less than two to three days, which is sometimes what they face at congested gateways.”
Dubbed the Cargo 4 Project, the new building will allow for larger aircraft or new destinations for integrator carriers like FedEx or UPS that require sorting facilities and high volumes of truck access. Airport officials said current cargo capacity in the existing three buildings will be full in the near future.
“E-commerce is doing all kinds of activity on air cargo, and warehouse space in general in the U.S. is very attractive now,” said Doug Bañez, managing director of Hubpoint Strategic Advisors, an aviation and logistics consultancy.
“A lot of major gateways are running out of space and are landlocked,” he said. “To the extent that airports like PIT can do this, this is clearly an advantage.”
Bañez said cargo supports regional economic development and is a highly competitive marketplace.
“It’s a jobs generator. It helps retain and grow industry, particularly manufacturing. It’s the community and region that benefit,” he said.
The airport applied for the grant through the federal BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) program.
An increased focus on cargo prompted airport leadership in September to approve the first phase of an $8 million cargo ramp expansion project. The airport board approved a contract for engineering design services to add nearly two acres of cargo ramp.
Airport officials said UPS and FedEx have already flown larger aircraft into PIT in the last year. And Qatar Airways Cargo, which started service to PIT more than two years ago, earlier this year inked a deal with Sri Lanka-based EFL to ship approximately 90 tons of freight per week through PIT.
EFL Group CEO Senthil Shanmugam said at the time that speed was a major factor in selecting Pittsburgh as its next North American distribution point. He cited the airport’s ability to unload cargo quickly and efficiently, get it on trucks and on the road within two hours of a plane’s arrival.
Cassotis credited the Western Pennsylvania U.S. House delegation and senators, as well as the business community and regional partners, for their support of the project in helping to secure the funding, which will cover most of the cost.
“We’re getting interest from carriers and freight forwarders around the world,” Cassotis said. “There’s a lot of interest in Pittsburgh as a cargo alternative and as a gateway. We want to make sure we can accommodate any and all demand.”