As Amazon.com increasingly looks to deliver its own packages, the online retailer is using Charlotte as one of the building blocks for its “Prime Air” cargo service.
As of August, two carriers that work with Amazon have been flying a total of two flights per day from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. And ABX Air and Air Transit International – both subsidiaries of Air Transport Services Group – have room to expand, according to emails obtained by the Observer through a public records request.
Seattle-based Amazon got its start in 1994 as an online seller of books, but in recent years it’s been shaking up the entire retail industry. Now it’s moving into the turf of UPS and FedEx as it expands its cargo fleet.
Last week, the company said it was building a “centralized air hub” at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport “to support its growing fleet of Prime Air cargo planes.” The project will create 2,000 jobs, Amazon said.
It’s not clear if this move will have any impact at Charlotte Douglas.
“We operate the air network at the discretion of our customer, which means they make all the decisions about where we will fly for them,” said Paul Cunningham, a spokesman for ATSG, the Ohio-based company whose subsidiaries fly for Amazon.
“As such, we’re unable to answer questions about how the new (Cincinnati) hub will affect CLT, or whether there are any expansion plans for CLT.”
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2016, the amount of air cargo at Charlotte Douglas rose more than 14 percent to 154,447 tons loaded and unloaded. Aviation Director Brent Cagle told the Observer that’s mostly from the new Amazon-based business.
“It shows us there is a lot of potential in the market for continued growth in cargo,” said Cagle. “We’re going to try to get more.”
Amazon’s airport presence is the latest addition to the retailer’s Charlotte-area footprint. The company has a receiving center at Old Dowd Road, near the airport, and a distribution center in Concord, where it employs about 360 people.
Amazon announced in August that it had agreed to lease 40 planes from ATSG and another carrier, Atlas Air. Amazon displayed the first plane with Prime Air markings at an air show that month and now says it has 16 planes in service, with more rolling out over time.
In October, Charlotte Douglas confirmed that it was contacted in the summer by ABX Air about cargo and ramp space to “accommodate 767 aircraft for an undisclosed client.” ABX leased a 43,000 square foot building and began operations Aug. 22, the airport said.
Last month, the airport provided the Observer with emails and other documents related to ABX and ATI’s operations at Charlotte Douglas. The documents included no mention of Amazon except for one email that listed the title of an ATSG executive as director of Amazon Network Operations.
In another email, Diane Douglas Carter, the airport’s commercial services and properties manager, asked an ABX official if he had heard any word from his “west coast client.”
ABX and ATI started with a total of two departing flights per day – one to Stockton Metropolitan Airport and one to Ontario International Airport, both in California, according to an Aug. 12 email.
According to the documents, landings at Charlotte Douglas reached 31 each in October for ABX and ATI, but there was a decline in November and December, which coincided with a strike by ABX pilots.
“The brief work stoppage last year grounded ABX Air planes nationwide for several days in late November/early December,” Cunningham said. “Since the end of that work stoppage, all ABX Air aircraft have been operating on normal schedules.”
ABX and ATI have no employees at Charlotte Douglas, Cunningham said. Loading and unloading of planes is handled by a contractor, he said.
If the carriers want to expand in the future, the airport can accommodate their growth, wrote Raymond Herron, the airport’s gate management supervisor, in an Aug. 18 email.
“As your operation expands, we have a plan in place so that we can add additional parking spaces in the future,” he wrote. “Just let me know if/when you are looking at expansion plans.”
Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.