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Family Aid 2020
   Vol. 20 No. 37
Wednesday September 29, 2021

Webber Fact Finding As Airports Signal Change

Michael Webber

     A conference perk that we miss is the opportunity to dine with friends we don’t otherwise see often. One came to us recently when Austin-based airport planner Michael Webber (Mike) was in town assisting The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey on cargo efforts at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
     At EWR and JFK, Webber has been interviewing cargo handlers and airlines about current operations and potential needs in the near and longer terms. Webber was reserved about details of his assignments from the Port Authority but expansive about cargo capacity needs of U.S. airports in general.
     Webber pushed back against some recent reporting. “If losses in tonnage by these airports were simply attributable to facilities, the beneficiaries would have been in the region. Massachusetts Port Authority Boston Logan is down 43% since 2000. Washington Dulles International Airport is down 48% during that period. Due in large part to its UPS regional hub, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) has achieved a total (not annual) of 1% growth in twenty years. The losses at major northeastern gateways is more about the migration of manufacturing and other demand drivers. In perspective, the combined tonnage growth of Bradley International Airport (Hartford, CT) and Lehigh Valley International Airport (Lehigh Valley, PA) about equals the decrease at Allegheny County Airport Authority Pittsburgh for the same period. We're talking about much more than the influence of cargo facilities.”
     So, the state of U.S. airport cargo facilities is fine? “No. Cargo facilities at most U.S. airports are inadequate for what’s ahead! Since 2000, cargo improvements at most U.S. airports were almost nil until E-commerce and a pandemic sparked new interest. Resolving the gaps is far more difficult in mature markets where development comes up to the fences. Airports like Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) on 14,000 acres are rare. Most major hubs can’t open up another greenfield site.”
     So, what do you do? “I talk to the best sources available. I don’t delude myself into thinking that I know more about a specific handler’s business than the handler does. Every airport is different. The handlers are conducting a complex symphony out there and it’s different from building to building. In a constrained environment, some best practices are impractical and so they pivot to what is possible under the circumstances. As a consultant, I learn as much as possible about demand from the tenants and their service partners and I confer with airport staff about what’s possible from the capacity standpoint. In a constrained environment, you try to optimize the available resources and understand trade-offs.”

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