Air cargo: A look at the goods moving through Virginia’s airports

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Print this page By Veronica Garabelli
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Photo courtesy Dulles International Airport

Millions of people travel through Virginia’s airports each year, but the commonwealth’s airports also transport more exotic things.

Last year a project required Washington Dulles International Airport, the commonwealth’s busiest cargo airport, to ship more than 1,100 cows destined for Qatar to help replenish the country’s milk supply. The cows arrived by truck from Pennsylvania and were transported to the Persian Gulf country on about seven planes. Dulles also has helped ship eels, bears and even human eyeballs.

“We can handle, basically, any type of commodity,” says Joseph Maly, head of air cargo at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles and Reagan airports in Northern Virginia.

Air cargo makes up a small fraction of cargo flowing through the commonwealth, but it’s often high-value and time sensitive, such as live human organs handled at Dulles.

A healthy economy has fueled cargo business at Dulles and a majority of Virginia’s commercial airports. Total cargo volume at Dulles increased 13 percent from 2016 to 2017, when it handled more than 664 million pounds of cargo. Last year was the busiest year for cargo at the airport since 2011.

Dulles mostly transports high-tech equipment but has had major growth in cargo related to the pharmaceutical and life-sciences sector. The airport has seen a 270 percent increase in imported pharmaceutical and life-sciences products. That leap has been driven by imports from India, a major manufacturer of generic pharmaceuticals exported to the U.S.  Another driver in the airport’s cargo business has been the growing popularity of online shopping.

“As more and more consumers start ordering online, a lot of freight now is being shipped through the e-commerce channel,” Maly says. “A lot of that’s going air freight.” 

The addition of more direct international flights out of Dulles also will open new opportunities for trade, as the majority of international cargo out of the airport is carried in the belly of passenger planes.

“In September Cathay Pacific starts up nonstop service [from Dulles] to Hong Kong four days a week,” Maly says. “That’s going to be a great way for not only passengers but also for companies who do trade with South China to have that next day link with Hong Kong out of Dulles.”

Cargo volume also has increased at Norfolk International Airport in Hampton Roads.  The airport’s cargo volume saw an uptick of 2.6 percent from 2016 to 2017. Charlie Braden, Norfolk International’s director of market development, says increases in cargo and passenger traffic reflect an improving economy.

“The outlook for 2018 will be dependent on the economy, airline capacity expansion and, to a certain extent, the defense budget,” Braden says.

Richmond International Airport is now handling significantly more cargo than its prerecession levels — jumping from more than 116 million pounds in 2007 to more than 135 million pounds last year. The changes have been fueled by a sunny economy and the 2016 arrival of DHL, a major cargo carrier.

The opening of two massive Amazon fulfillment centers in the area also likely has fast-tracked business.  Airport officials are optimistic about future growth of cargo business but know that it’s tied to the economy. “If it’s healthy, it grows. If it’s weak, it’ll drop off like we saw with the 2008 recession,” says Troy Bell, Richmond International’s public information officer.

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