PIT Sees Busiest Cargo Year in Nearly 20 Years

Increase is part of long-term plan to provide alternative to congested air hubs

By Bob Kerlik

Published January 24, 2022

Read Time: 4 mins


More cargo passed through Pittsburgh International Airport last year than at any point since 2004, meaning more jobs for the region as the industry capitalized on the airport’s speed and efficiency.

Nearly 250 million pounds of cargo shipped from around the world touched down at PIT in 2021, a 30 percent increase over 2020 and a 26 percent increase from 2019, as demand for air cargo soared amid global supply chain disruptions.

Airport officials and industry experts said PIT’s aggressive cargo strategy – set in motion prior to the pandemic – allowed it to capitalize during the past two years as capacity constraints piled up at major U.S. gateways.

“It’s not just taking advantage of the demand. It’s more than that,” said Nate Hankinson, president of Pittsburgh-based NJH Consulting, which focuses on supply chain and logistics. “PIT has really used that to springboard into a long-term, sustainable product.”

Hankinson said the airport’s success comes from partnering with the regional logistics ecosystem, such as trucking companies, ground handlers, local warehousing, container freight stations and third-party logistics providers.

“The Airport Authority has put a lot of effort into a long-term solution for inbound and outbound air freight – to really build a product that is different than what’s offered at the major air hubs in the U.S. to offer quicker turn times, quicker to market.”

Airlines and logistics companies alike have consistently praised PIT’s ability to speedily unload cargo and get it on trucks to distribution centers, a valuable trait in a business where time quite literally costs money.

Traditional cargo gateways are often swamped, creating a backlog that keeps cargo sitting for days waiting to be processed or available for delivery. Every minute that cargo isn’t being moved to its final destination incurs further expenses.

That fact was echoed by Marc Schlossberg, executive vice president of air cargo & sales/marketing for Unique Logistics. Schlossberg’s company has shipped thousands of pounds of fashion apparel and high-tech products through PIT in the past year on a variety of international airlines, including Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways.

“What we’re seeing is the labor issues and challenges surrounding lack of capacity at terminals as well as the additional labor required to manage passenger freighters has driven operations to secondary airports like PIT because the major gateways can’t handle the requirements,” Schlossberg said. “The labor shortage is a problem in places like JFK and as a result it’s opened up opportunities for me to divert aircraft away from JFK or Chicago or L.A.”

Amazon Air, which began service at PIT in May, is using 50,000 square feet of space at the airport through a partner lease agreement while supporting approximately 70 jobs. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Conversely, PIT offers no congestion, fast response times and fast turnaround times. Once the cargo arrives it’s trucked “generally to the Midwest and East Coast, however we’ve sent up to Canada and we’ve sent to the West Coast when the congestion’s been bad,” he said. “Nothing gets lost. Once PIT accepts it, we know we’re going to get that service level.”

That growing traffic has a ripple effect throughout the local economy, airport officials said.

“The generation of new jobs that have been created and businesses moving freight through PIT have been a benefit to our region,” said Vince Gastgeb, senior vice president, Corporate & Government Relations. “We are proud to play a part in this economic infrastructure with our cargo growth turning PIT into a regional logistical center that we had envisioned.”

Amazon Air started air cargo service to PIT in May and has since grown to two flights a day. Through a partner lease agreement, Amazon is using 50,000 square feet of space at the airport. The facility is managed by an Amazon logistics partner, Trego-Dugan Aviation and supported the creation of approximately 70 jobs.

Officials at Tazmanian Freight Systems, an international freight forwarding company, are planning to hire up to seven people and have leased a 30,000 square-foot warehouse on airport property to accommodate its growing air cargo business.

“It costs less to land the plane here; it costs less to refuel the plane here; and then we are able to get the freight off the plane faster because it’s less congested,” said Paul Leitner, Tazmanian station manager. “We’re able to offload it, take it to our warehouse and then put it on a truck to New York or wherever it needs to go faster than if it flew into New York.”

PIT’s reputation for efficiency has reverberated even outside the cargo industry as government leaders have taken notice.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded PIT an $18.69 million BUILD 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. And last year, the state awarded its own $2.5 million grant to assist the development of what the airport has dubbed the Cargo 4 project.

Scheduled to open in 2024, Cargo 4 will allow PIT to accept freight from abroad and distribute it throughout North America, making Western Pennsylvania more competitive in a growing industry and positioning the airport as a gateway for global logistics.

The facility includes 75,000 square feet of warehouse space and 7,300 square feet of office space across two floors. The building will feature 18 loading docks for trucks; most will come with dock levelers while others will be used specifically for Unit Loading Devices (ULDs). Flatbed trucks will be able to access the interior of the warehouse, which is advantageous in poor weather.

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