The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a successful career by making light of his lack of respect from others. After hearing about delays in a long-awaited airport redevelopment project, it’s probably safe to say that air cargo stakeholders in Los Angeles now understand how Dangerfield felt. Unfortunately, the additional wait for the cargo facility overhaul will be no joke for the thousands of shippers and forwarders who depend upon the airport to run their businesses.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is sometimes referred to as the airport that nobody loves. The facility is the second busiest airfield in the United States, coming second to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. A building expansion just before the 1984 Olympics doubled the square footage with revamped terminals, multilevel parking structures, and an upper-level roadway which improved passenger access – but only for a while.
Since that renovation, air travel has increased by more than double, growing from 33 million passengers in 1983 to 85 million per year today. The aging infrastructure is failing to accommodate the increased passenger volume at every stage, from the ad hoc security lines to the uncomfortable waiting areas to the tangle of cars lined up outside.
The increasing frustration and inefficiencies at LAX have not gone unnoticed, however. Enter the Landside Access Modernization Program – a $14 billion initiative that will be one of the most significant public works projects in California history, and will be underway until 2023.
Once complete, passenger improvements should include a people mover that is supposed to accommodate 10,000 riders each hour, with trams pulling into the stations every two minutes. The most extended trip across the airport will take no more than ten minutes. A planned new Metro station will reduce the current gap, as the current closest light rail station is two miles from the terminal. Approximately $760 million in improvements for each terminal promise faster passenger security screening and better atmospherics for people using the airport.
At a recent town hall meeting, cargo stakeholders learned they will now need to wait at least two more years before the planned cargo redevelopment will begin. When combined with the necessary bidding, environmental impact and stakeholder assessment processes, the wait may even exceed five years before the first facility opens. As a result, any organization using LAX for cargo shipping must continue to rely on a patchwork of old and inefficient cargo facilities scattered around the airport.
Airfreight volumes show a flattening in past months. But in 2018, LAX’s world ranking for cargo operations jumped two spaces, making it number 10 for the most cargo tonnage processed. Every day, more than 1,200 flights carrying cargo arrive and depart from LAX, and in 2018 the airport handled a total of 2.2 million metric tons of cargo – a 2.4% rise from the previous year. This increase is a clear indicator of the critical role LAX plays as a conduit for trade in the U.S. and internationally.
The significant growth in airfreight volumes is fueled by several factors. These include increased manufacturing demand, lower interest rates, and of course, a surge in cross border e-commerce. Online ordering is expected to present the most significant opportunity for air cargo and is expected to increase as much as 25% annually in the coming years.
The volume surge has a significant ripple effect of increasing waiting times for truckers, who tender or retrieve shipments not just in Los Angeles but at busy gateways throughout the country. Truck waiting times at LAX routinely exceed four hours at the existing cargo facilities. Forwarders face significant waiting time and associated expense that often is difficult to pass along to the customer. Until recently, the airport had been in the midst of modernizing its cargo facilities with the Century Cargo Redevelopment Project, which would allow officials to maintain and enhance LAX’s air cargo market position among U.S. airports and the world.
In a blunt statement to over 200 in attendance at the town hall event, an official from LAX said that there were just too many simultaneous projects and resulting impacts to manage effectively. As a result, cargo, an essential lifeline to the area’s commercial and economic growth, will have to take a back seat as the LAX redevelopment project progresses.
Air cargo redevelopment will ultimately find its way to LAX. Still, in the meantime, it has become imperative to identify creative solutions to manage increasing truck congestion. One proposed idea is to displace less urgent import shipments to warehouses away from the airport. Another is to leverage technology by introducing automated check-in and traffic flow systems, as some other airports are doing throughout the country.
Aviation continues to be a tremendous factor in furthering economic and social development around LAX, and airports globally. Placing freight on the backburner in any airport redevelopment plan ignores the fundamental fact that air cargo plays a significant role, and that is no laughing matter.