Snakes (and more) on a plane: Charlotte airport cargo business growing

Flowers from South America, fine fabric from Milan, tropical fish, robotic pool cleaners, human remains: Almost anything you can think of has gone through the US Airways cargo center at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and flown out in a jet’s cargo hold, right below unsuspecting passengers’ feet.

Yes, that includes snakes. On a plane.

“I’ve only seen that two or three times in 20 years,” said Charles White, general manager for Air General, the cargo handler US Airways contracts with to operate its Charlotte Douglas shipping facilities.

American Airlines and US Airways merged last December. The companies have worked to integrate their divisions while flying under their current names. Last month, the carriers combined their cargo operations, making it the first fully integrated division of the new American Airlines.

At Charlotte Douglas, the US Airways signs on the cargo building next to the old terminal on Yorkmont Road will be switched to American Airlines next month. Customers shipping goods have full access to the combined carrier’s routes. They can also ship live, warm-blooded animals now, something American offered that US Airways didn’t.

The switch gives cargo customers a larger network from Charlotte, said Jimmy Speas, American’s managing director for cargo at Charlotte Douglas. “With hubs in Miami, JFK, Dallas/Fort Worth, there’s so much more network to feed.”

Although the cargo operation is officially combined, Speas and other workers at the cargo facility continually catch themselves saying “US Airways” instead of American Airlines. One of them jokes that he keeps getting locked out of his computer because he forgets to type the new name when he logs in.

The air cargo operation is mostly invisible to passengers. Cargo is loaded before passengers’ bags and offloaded after. A small regional jet might carry 400 pounds of cargo, including everything from U.S. mail to time-sensitive blood being sent for testing, while a widebody jet bound for Europe might carry 40,000 pounds.

When people hear about cargo, it usually means something’s gone wrong: Last month, a shipment of live crabs got loose in the cargo hold of a US Airways plane headed from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Charlotte. The flight was delayed for 30 minutes while airline workers swept up the crustacean escapees.

When items arrive at the freight terminal, they’re processed and assembled on large pallets for loading onto planes. Boxes of different size and weight have to be grouped together into cubes of roughly uniform shape, then wrapped and covered in nets to prevent them from shifting in flight.

“It’s kind of like putting a puzzle together,” said Wayne Brown, American’s regional cargo manager. An Airbus A330-300 can carry eight pallets worth of cargo, he said, all of which has to be weighed, screened for security and loaded safely.

A growing business

The American Airlines cargo facility was built in 1987 to handle cargo for Piedmont Airlines, when Charlotte was that carrier’s hub. This week at the facility, workers sorted boxes of mail and assembled pallets of freight bound for a widebody jet. Crates marked “fragile” and “glass” stood in rows.

A white casket, marked “Handle with care,” sat on a moving cart, waiting to be loaded for its final trip.

The volume of air cargo has grown at Charlotte Douglas, which saw 99,413 tons of air cargo through September. That’s up 3 percent from a year ago. American isn’t the only shipper at Charlotte Douglas: Cargo facilities at the airport also handle shipping for the other passenger airlines and dedicated shipping companies such as FedEx, DHL and UPS.

Although Charlotte Douglas is American’s second-busiest passenger hub, with more than 600 daily flights operated by the airline, some of the other hubs have far larger cargo operations. Dallas/Fort Worth, American’s biggest hub, handled 505,374 tons of cargo through September. For the same period, Miami International had 1.4 million tons.

Such airports have more international service and flights on larger jets than Charlotte Douglas, which is primarily a domestic hub. They also have larger dedicated freight shipping operations, such as Centurion Air Cargo, a major shipper to and from Latin America based in Miami.

Other airports, such as American hub Philadelphia International, benefit from specific routes. With daily flights from Tel Aviv, Israel, often carrying refrigerated pharmaceutical products, American recently added more cold storage capacity at its Philadelphia cargo operation.

Cargo has been a growing revenue source for airlines this year after a slump in volumes after the recession. In October, American reported its cargo revenues totaled $643 million for the first nine months of the year. Although that’s a small fraction of American’s $32.5 billion in revenue, the 6.7 percent growth rate outpaced the growth of passenger revenue.

Airport officials have made logistics a centerpiece of their plan to spur development at and around Charlotte Douglas. The airport allowed Norfolk Southern to build a $92 million rail shipping yard between two runways. The intermodal yard can accommodate 1,300 trucks and move containers between railroad cars and 18-wheelers.

Although there’s not much, if any, cargo that transfers directly from trains to planes, officials hope the intermodal yard could spur manufacturing and logistics providers to grow around Charlotte Douglas. Such companies could boost air cargo as well.

Area manufacturers already use air cargo for sensitive components. BMW, which operates a 1,000-acre factory in Spartanburg, ships transmissions on jets from Germany to Charlotte.

So the next time you fly, remember: There’s no telling what’s under your seat. But the cargo guys know.

“I always look up on the load plan what’s on the plane,” Brown said.

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