In 2020, 439 million pounds of cargo moved through Wilmington Air Park in Ohio. That makes it the third largest cargo-focused airport in the U.S. — "extensive cargo traffic but little or no passenger traffic" — according to an analysis of government data by researchers at DePaul University.
The facility has a history in cargo operations, but for a time in the early 2000s, Wilmington Air Park's future didn't look as bright as it does today.
In 2003, DHL acquired Airborne Express, which was headquartered in Wilmington, Ohio. DHL had about 6,000 employees, making it one of the largest employers in the region, according to the Courier.
DHL's air hub was in Cincinnati before it acquired assets from Airborne Express. It had to decide which one to keep.
"It doesn't make sense to operate two hubs that close together," Michael Webber, the president of Webber Air Cargo, said in an interview. It went with Wilmington, integrating the hubs in 2005.
But a few years later, financial issues led DHL to make some tough decisions. It signed a $1 billion deal with UPS for its "archrival" to carry its airfreight, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Things were not looking good for Wilmington. As part of the reorganization, DHL moved its international business away from Wilmington, back to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky. The decision resulted in a loss of 8,000 jobs, according to Wilmington Air Park.
"The deal contemplated by DHL and UPS creates a crisis unprecedented in the rural United States, much less in rural Ohio," ABX Air and Air Transport Services Group CEO Joseph C. Hete said in written testimony submitted before a 2008 congressional hearing on the deal. "Never have so many jobs left such a rural region in so short a period of time."
Cargo-first growth in Wilmington, Ohio
More than a decade later, Wilmington Air Park is one of the fastest-growing airports in the country. That's in large part thanks to Amazon.
"We were confident that Wilmington has a big future of Amazon Air," Joseph P. Schwieterman, the director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University and one of the authors of the report, said in an interview.
E-commerce is also helping to propel the growth of cargo-focused hubs, he said. These hubs have seen their traffic grow more than 31% YoY between 2019 and 2020, Schwieterman found.
"The surge in at-home delivery has pushed supply chains to the max," he said. "And cargo airports have been positioned well to take advantage of that."
Wilmington is still relatively small compared to many other airports. Its 2019 cargo volume was less than 0.5% the size of the largest cargo hub in the U.S. — Memphis International. But off of this small base, Wilmington grew its cargo volume by nearly 289% YoY in 2020, according to the DePaul report.
Wilmington still small compared to leading hubs
The growth comes at a time when all eyes are — again — on Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky where Amazon has announced plans for an Air Hub. Wilmington is now the fifth-largest air hub in Amazon's network, according to the DePaul analysis.
The quick growth was the result of the infrastructure built by Airborne Express and DHL that made it a viable option, Webber said.
"It would be much more challenging for an airport like Wilmington to meet the kind of demand [of Amazon] if you were starting from a Greenfield site with nothing on it," he said. "But that's an airport that already had a cargo hub in its history."
That's where Wilmington sees its future: cargo.
"We view ourselves unabashedly as a cargo first airport," Executive Director of the Clinton County Port Authority Daniel Evers said.
Beth Huber, the associate director of the Clinton County Port Authority, said the facility's location allows airlines to reach "60% to 70%" of the U.S. population with an hour-long flight. And it's 10 minutes from Interstate 71, which allows quick access to Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton, Evers said.
Amazon's time in Wilmington dates back to 2015 when it first began a pilot project to determine the validity of an air cargo option.
Amazon "operated here for 18 months, found it to be very viable," Evers said. After the pilot in Wilmington, Amazon made a decision to build the hub in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky.
"But a year later, the company contacted us and due to its growth and its need for additional capacity introduced the topic of returning to the Wilmington Airpark," he said.
Wilmington replaced a dozen panels on the primary runway, repaired its taxiways and the ramp that serves the air cargo operations. Parking was added, two facilities were demolished, fencing was put up and navigational aids were updated. It amounted to "tens of millions of dollars" paid by the Port Authority and Amazon, Evers said.
Connecting flights, trucks and parcels
With the infrastructure in place, Amazon is able to connect to fulfillment centers in the region. Trucks can bring in deliveries to the airport from fulfillment centers that can be delivered next day to Columbus or Dayton. The sortation center at the airport allows for packages to come in on one flight or truck and leave on another flight or truck depending, on where in the country it might be headed, Evers said.
This has resulted in employment not only for Amazon's sortation center, but also for the Air Park, he said. With a big customer in the facility operating 24/7, it now has to worry about things like being able to clear runways during a snowstorm in the middle of the night.
"There's equipment investment, there's staffing and investment in getting people trained and qualified to operate big snowplows," Huber said.
With Amazon in town, Wilmington was able to take the title of the busiest aircargo hub in Ohio at the end of 2020, according to WVXU.
And Evers and Huber said they're still talking with more prospective clients about coming to the airport. One benefit they present them with is the fact that they're not in a large city, and there is plenty of room for new clients to build.
"We have the opportunity to grow and offer people either a spec space or a built-to-suit space, that is going to give them a little bigger footprint maybe than they might get in a metropolitan airport," Huber said.
Parcels take to the sky
Not all of air cargo facilities are used for the same purpose. FedEx and UPS do more overnight flights to help facilitate overnight delivery. But Amazon Air's networks appear to be designed for general inventory movements for replenishing fulfillment centers, Schwieterman said.
"We don't have a lot of evidence that they're shipping addressed packages heavily on Amazon Air," he said. "They might be. But the flight network isn't designed for ... for airplane-to-airplane package transfers like FedEx and UPS."
This could change when it opens up its air hub in Cincinnati, he said.
"The could be a strategic pivot where they recalibrate their network to be more like FedEx and UPS," he said. "But there's not a lot evidence of that yet."