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Puerto Rico plays the game: How regional hubs can – and should – be built

When playing a map-based development board game, it becomes increasingly apparent that each player approaches the game with their own strategy. Your sister likes to begin construction of a town on coastal cities, whereas your 13-year-old nephew may instead prefer to create a tentacle network of train tracks out from a central point. Your brother clearly didn’t enter with a strategy and may pay the price later. Despite personal approaches, certain strategies often work better than others in positioning a player to win.

Recently, Puerto Rico has made moves to position itself as a key player in the Caribbean regional market capturing traffic between the Americas and Europe. As it works to become a hub, a look at foundational building blocks present in existing North American hub strategies may provide insight for mindfully growing their own operations and winning stakeholders over.

Grand plans

On June 7 of this year, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico filed an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on behalf of its international airports, which include Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan (SJU), the Rafael Hernández International Airport in Aguadilla (BQN), and the Mercedita International Airport in Ponce (PSE). Although Puerto Rico’s vision to develop a cargo hub is not new, the application represents a step forward in the territory’s efforts to develop as a viable hub for air cargo stakeholders.

Since 2009, the country has worked to establish itself as a Carribean hub, and in 2012 successfully established a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) around Aguadilla Airport (BQN). The move was and still is intended to help capture traffic overflying Puerto Rico, as an FTZ offers benefits such as 25-30% cheaper fuel than in other Caribbean jurisdictions, largely due to the fact that there are often no local taxes on fuel in FTZs.

Despite these efforts and the growing popularity of Puerto Rican airports to service pharma ops at the time, volumes moving out of the airports in the 2010s have “lagged” compared to those seen in the early 2000s, according to Puerto Rico Airports Authority. Volumes have dropped from around 102,500 tonnes (or 205 million pounds) of cargo in fiscal year (FY) 2010, to around 36,000 tonnes in FY2018. The most recent drop is largely due to the merger that was announced last May, when Mexican private airport operator Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste (ASUR) and Canadian pension investment manager Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investments) acquired 50% interest in Aerostar Airport Holdings, which has operated Puerto Rico’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU) since 2013.

Beyond tensions arising from this acquisition that marked the beginning of highly contested moves by the government to privatize Puerto Rico’s airports, efforts to grow business faced a massive set back when Hurricane Maria demolished much of the island’s infrastructure in autumn of 2017, devastating operations out of the airport.

Following the hurricane, stakeholders have returned and relaunched operations from the island, which remains a pharma hot spot for carriers such as FedEx, Ameriflight, Emirates SkyCargo, Cargolux, and freight forwarders like Caibex, IFL Group and AIT Logistics. Today, pharma continues to represent 25% of the territory’s GDP, as well as over 70% of Puerto Rico’s inbound and outbound air cargo.

Though resilient and passionate about rebounding from the situation, it is understandably taking the island time to come back from the catastrophe.

Given this, the Puerto Rican Commonwealth government’s recent application to the DOT explicitly states the role its transshipment hub status would play in “facilitating the rebuilding of the Puerto Rican economy” following Hurricane Maria.

Moreover, the document suggests transshipment hub status would also indirectly aid Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry as the country’s 90 pharma facilities continue to recover from the damage wrought by the hurricane. The enhanced airline competition and lower supply chain costs will bolster Puerto Rican pharma industry against competitors based in China and India that offer cheaper manufacturing, the document argues.

In the long term, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico says that its airports can offer a unique geographic location and available capacity to serve as a Caribbean and Latin American cargo hub and will inevitably generate new interline for U.S. carriers moving between Puerto Rico and the continental United States as well Central and South America and Europe.

A test of Puerto Rico’s strategy blocks

Several challenges, however, stand in the face of this grand dream as other players test the strength of Puerto Rico’s strategy in crafting a hub airport.

Removed from air cargo’s existing systemic structure, Puerto Rico does have a history of being challenged by weather and sources told  Air Cargo World that risk mitigation would be a critical issue in convincing carriers to invest in building major hub-status operations there. There also exists the issue of available capacity as the island does present a finite territory.

When replaced into the current system of global air cargo, there are nearby competitors, like Miami (MIA) with existing infrastructure, space, networks and security Puerto Rico does not currently offer. Therefore, Puerto Rico may be “hard-pressed to compete,” one source said.

The island’s airports also face internal challenges from opposition against airport privatization. Only three days after the Commonwealth government submitted its application, L.A. Irizarry & Associates, a consultant for several air carriers, submitted an opposition to the application to the DOT.

The opposition piece argued privatization of Puerto Rico’s has hurt the economy by serving buyers over the Puerto Rican public. It further claimed that the action of the government is “trying to circumnavigate the already established agreements between signatory countries under the Chicago Convention for the freedoms of the air.”

These challenges do not mean Puerto Rico has no chance at becoming a hub but that it will require the island’s airports to make a compelling argument as to the value they can offer stakeholders.

Building a winning strategy

“It takes a number of attributes to really fit within the ideal hub location,” Memphis International Airport (MEM) President and CEO Scott Brockman said. “It’s not a field of dreams where you build it and they will come.”

The three key building blocks critical to a sound hub development strategy include – location, infrastructure and value. See the sidebar to the right for examples of how existing hub airports in North America have incorporated these elements into their strategies.

For location, Puerto Rico is positioned to capture some traffic moving between the Americas and Europe, but must assuage viable concerns related to risk mitigation necessary for sustaining ops related to weather. Several carriers also currently view Puerto Rico a consumer market and export market for pharmaceuticals, but not as a trans-loading market. Even were the island to attain trans-shipment status for its airports, this may not necessarily be enough to attract operators.

“At the end of the day the special rights are only an enhancement and not the driving factor of what ANC offers its stakeholders,” explained Anchorage (ANC) airport director Jim Szczesniak.

With regards to infrastructure, Puerto Rico still is recovering from the hurricane, but clearly can facilitate strong pharmaceutical operations. Demonstrating further expansion on perishables or more diverse market offerings could improve this point.

Freight forwarders, for example look at “how [airports] geographically align with large concentrations of tonnages from our key clients, and how we can pull together a diverse mix of products, so we can effectively build and move consolidations,” AIT Logistics Executive Vice President Global Operations Greg Weigel said.

Next, the island must also convince stakeholders of the value proposition in hosting a hub there. Puerto Rico already offers fuel cost benefits. However, sources said it would also behoove the island to demonstrate they can provide efficient infrastructure and airport management that allows operators to seamlessly run their operations then become the key facets stakeholders look for in a hub.

When working to create a transit hub, “pay attention to needs of your stakeholders, take care of your infrastructure, try to plan in advance, move at the pace that the business needs you to move, and then get out of their way and let them be successful,” explains CVG CEO Candance McGraw said.

As Puerto Rico awaits its pending DOT application, it relies upon the island to demonstrate to stakeholders it hosts sound building blocks for a hub as it seeks to win a larger share in regional air cargo.

This originally appeared on Air Cargo World


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