In Miami, Charlotte leaders get a glimpse at major port, competing airport

Miami's airport and port

The Charlotte Chamber hosted a delegation to visit Miami's airport and port as part of the Chamber's annual intercity visit on Wednesday.
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The Charlotte Chamber hosted a delegation to visit Miami's airport and port as part of the Chamber's annual intercity visit on Wednesday.

Charlotte is used to thinking about its airport hub as the region’s most important economic asset, and the airport’s rail freight yard as the next big thing.

But on Wednesday, it saw reasons not to get complacent.

Local leaders got an up-close look at Miami’s airport and the Port of Miami, economic powerhouses that showed Charlotte Douglas International Airport – while a huge hub – still doesn’t compare with Miami in international passengers and cargo.

“Without a doubt, they’re No. 1,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, talking about Miami’s airport and port. Together, they generate more than 500,000 jobs in the region, Gimenez said.

135,085​Tons of air cargo at Charlotte Douglas in 2015

2.17 millionTons of air cargo at Miami International in 2015

2.8 millionInternational passengers at Charlotte Douglas in 2015

21.2 millionInternational passengers at Miami International in 2015

A delegation of more than 100 business and political leaders from Charlotte traveled to Miami on Wednesday for the Charlotte Chamber’s annual intercity visit, when leaders visit another city to learn about growth strategies and pitfalls.

Charlotte Douglas and Miami International are both American Airlines hubs. Charlotte is the airline’s second-busiest hub, with 44.9 million passengers last year, including 2.8 million international travelers.

Most of them flew on American, which operates more than 90 percent of daily flights at Charlotte.

But the vast majority of those passengers – about 80 percent – are simply connecting from one plane to another, rather than starting or ending their trip in Charlotte.

Miami International saw 44.3 million passengers in 2015, including 21.2 million international travelers – many of whom are coming to visit Miami. American operates about two-thirds of flights at Miami International.

Miami has the second-most international travelers, behind JFK International Airport in New York.

In Charlotte, American added nonstop flights in 2014 to Barcelona, Lisbon, Brussels and Manchester but later cut back those flights because of weaker-than-expected demand.

The diversity of international flights and carriers was apparent Wednesday at Miami’s airport, with colorful international airline paint from the Middle East and Europe emblazoned on planes. Turkish Airlines, Qatari, Swiss, Colombian and Airbus A380 “superjumbo” jets from Air France and British Airways serve Miami – and that’s just some of the new international service Miami added last year.

Emilio Gonzalez, Miami-Dade’s aviation director, said the airport aggressively pursues international carriers. Such pursuits typically involve concessions to the carriers on landing fees and other charges, along with agreements for the airport to pay for marketing. It’s an expensive proposition for an airport but one that can generate new routes.

Miami International added eight new international routes in 2014 and five in 2015.

“International routes bring money to the community … We chase international carriers because that’s where the money is,” said Gonzalez. “It’s the international traveler that comes that’s the moneymaker for us.”

“If I hear of an airline that ordered 20 (Boeing) Dreamliners and they’re not flying here, I’m there,” said Gonzalez. “I’m in their face.”

That helps Miami support the highest volume of international air cargo in the U.S. The airport handled almost 2.2 million tons of freight in 2015, 1.9 million tons of that international.

How does Charlotte Douglas stack up? In 2015, the airport handled 135,085 tons of cargo, 26,479 of that international.

One much-touted development at Charlotte Douglas that opened in 2013 is the city’s intermodal rail yard. The yard located between two runways at the airport transfers cargo containers from trains to trucks, and vice versa. It’s expected to be a key tool in Charlotte’s economic development – but it’s not unique.

The Port of Miami has restarted rail service at its terminal, giving shippers the ability to unload directly onto trains. Driving past a half-dozen towering vessels piled high with shipping containers and cranes lifting and lowering containers, the size and economic impact of Miami’s port was plain to see, piled beside the docks. The port also has an intermodal yard to transfer cargo seamlessly.

Charlotte leaders didn’t seem overly concerned by the differences. For one, there’s nothing they can do about the city’s location hundreds of miles from the coast, and Charlotte Douglas is still the fifth-busiest airport in the nation based on takeoffs and landings.

“There are some very obvious differences – Charlotte doesn’t have a port,” said Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. And the city’s abundant air service, while disproportionately based on connecting traffic, is still a major asset.

“We really punch above our weight at the airport,” Roberts said.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo