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They Might Be Giants

The Port of Huntsville is north Alabama’s hometown airport, but its international cargo operations put this middling-sized city in the top 20 ranks of the nation’s air gateway giants.

Richard Tucker, executive director of the Huntsville Madison County Airport Authority

Richard Tucker, executive director of the Huntsville Madison County Airport Authority

Huntsville has historically been the hub of Alabama aerospace enterprise—the builders of spacecraft—but Huntsville also sets the pace for using aircraft to get things and people from one place to the other in record time.

The Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority oversees three divisions: the passenger operations of Huntsville International Airport, cargo operations of the International Intermodal Center and the Jetplex Industrial Park, which is the north Alabama home to a number of international aerospace companies.

We asked Authority Executive Director Richard Tucker to give our readers a perspective on the airport as a statewide and regional resource.

If you live in the Tennessee Valley region, you view Huntsville International as your hometown airport. Our passenger service area is a 50-mile radius covering 18 counties—12 counties in Alabama and six counties in south central Tennessee.

When you look at our cargo operations, our service reach is much broader, extending 600 miles, as far away as Wisconsin. The average local citizen doesn’t really understand the impact of that to the region. In fact, we even deal with business people who don’t understand what they have in their own backyard. In fact, Alabama is a pretty small percentage of what goes on in our 747 operations.

The 747 operations we have are owned and controlled by Panalpina, which is based in Basel, Switzerland. They started in 1990 with one 747 a week. Since then, they’ve gradually added to the number of flights, beginning with a second 747 in 1994. There were many observers back then who thought it would not be successful—a small airport like Huntsville doing the kind of business that is usually reserved for traditional gateway airports like New York and Los Angeles.

Air cargo is extremely important to us. We put a focus there from a customs perspective. In most gateways, passenger traffic slows customs clearance. With us, cargo is number one and doesn’t have to wait for passengers to clear customs. If you think about the average ground time for international air cargo being six hours door-to-door, if your airport can cut significant time off that average, you’re competitive. Our goal is to turn cargo in two hours. If we can do that, we think that is pretty much setting the benchmark for the industry.

Everybody in this business is interested in cost and keeping cost down, and that is something we pay a lot of attention to—landing fees, rent fees. If we keep that in mind as we go through the budgeting process, we can remain competitive in our market.

The authority began promoting its cargo capacities in the early ’80s, with an air cargo ramp that had 50,000 square feet of cargo space. Those efforts culminated in the rail intermodal facility in 1986. We now have over 300,000 square feet of cargo space. We took on some risk, but it was relatively small, when you consider these 747s cost Panalpina hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. Since Panalpina came, we’ve invested—between our own resources and FAA improvement funding—over $180 million in infrastructure that directly relates to cargo operations. The first building for Panalpina cost $8 million, and it took all of our capital resources.

We celebrated the 20th anniversary of Panalpina here with the announcement by Panalpina that it is going to start Hong Kong service. That service was inbound initially, one flight. And shortly after that they announced they were also adding Sao Paulo, Brazil, and shortly after that they announced a second Hong Kong flight, adding an outbound, making it round trip. All that was on top of what they already had: five flights to and from Europe and two to and from Mexico.

As a result of those expansions, we had a record year in 2011 for international air cargo. We bumped up to being number 14 in the U.S. for international air cargo, and we were by far the smallest community on that top 20 list.

When we travel globally, talking to air cargo companies, from their perspective they’re hitting the major gateways—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. If they even think of a Southeast U.S. location, it’s Atlanta. Most of the time we’re spending a good bit of time educating them that Huntsville is a better alternative. A lot of international carriers have only two or three locations in the U.S. In that sense, we’re competing for the eastern side of the U.S., a 26-state area. We’ve certainly promoted ourselves throughout the world, trying to attract additional carriers into our marketplace. We’ve promoted jointly with Panalpina.

On the passenger side, we’re in the final phase of a six-year, $92 million expansion that includes expanded area for security screening, waiting areas, the parking deck and baggage claims. We hope to cut the ribbon on the final phase in two months.

We are virtually one-stop to most places in the U.S., and we have daily nonstop service to our number one market, Washington, D.C., as well as seven other nonstop locations for the U.S. United, American Airlines, Delta and U.S. Airways are all serving our airport. It is certainly a major advantage in doing business and attracting new business to the area. We’ve tried to put together, in one location, all that is needed to do business in the global marketplace, and our passenger operations are at the top of that list.

The Jetplex Industrial Park is composed of 4,000 acres, and, within our complex, there are over 7,500 people employed. When we had the last economic impact study, we broke down where the people live in the surrounding cities and counties, and it came down to a three-county area that had significant impact, and even throughout the 18-county service area there were employees living in those counties, as well.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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