Air cargo surge on horizon |

Air cargo surge on horizon

John Seelmeyer

For weeks, Matheson Flight Extenders has been running radio ads and recruiting aggressively at area colleges as it prepares to double the number of workers handling air cargo at its facilities in Reno and Sparks during the holiday season.

Air-cargo companies ranging from the giants — FedEx and UPS — to smaller outfits such as Matheson Flight Extenders are gearing up for a seasonal surge at Reno-Tahoe International Airport that reflects the region’s growing role as an e-commerce distribution hub.

Last year, the amount of cargo handled by the airport during December was about 40 percent greater than the volume handled six months earlier. Air cargo volume during this holiday season may be more than 45 percent greater than the level recorded during non-holiday months, says Brian Pratte, director of air service and cargo development for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority.

The cargo rush is expected to begin the Monday after Thanksgiving — so-called “Cyber Monday” when Internet orders pour into Web-fulfillment centers.

FedEx, in fact, expects that Dec. 2 will prove to be the single busiest day in its history. System-wide, the company headquartered at Memphis expects to move 22 million shipments, about double its usual volume, says FedEx spokesman Ben Hunt.

The company doesn’t break out figures for individual markets such as Reno. But the growing presence in northern Nevada of Web fulfillment centers ranging from big facilities operated by Urban Outfitters and Toys ‘R’ Us to numerous third-party logistics distribution centers that pick-and-pack Internet orders means the region will be adding its share to the river of holiday air cargo.

Pratte notes that the holiday surge comes on top of other trends that already are boosting air cargo shipments through the region. For the first 10 months of this year, cargo shipments in Reno ran 4.2 percent ahead of the same period last year.

By comparison, cargo traffic across North America was down 1.3 percent through the first nine months of this year compared with the same time a year ago, says the International Air Transport Association, an industry group.

Part of the year-round growth in Reno reflects the non-holiday shipments from the growing Web-fulfillment sector. After all, the big Amazon distribution center at Fernley sells books in April, too.

At the same time, Pratte says the region has seen quiet growth in the pharmaceuticals-distribution sector. Those high-value, low-weight, time-sensitive products are naturals to be delivered by air.

And the simple recovery of the region’s economy has played a role, too. Economics researchers say trends in the air-cargo business are a good indicator of economic health.

The seasonal surge puts pressure on air-cargo companies to recruit enough employees.

Glen Gates, president of Matheson Flight Extenders, a division of Sacramento-based Matheson Trucking Inc., says the company asks its existing staff members to refer job candidates to augment the efforts its making through traditional recruitment avenues.

Along with additional staff — the company will have about 30 fulltime workers in Reno and Sparks at the holiday peak — Gates says the company will prepare to move in additional equipment to meet the rising demand.

FedEx, meanwhile, is increasing the hours of its workforce during the holiday rush, Hunt says. The company added about 20,000 seasonal workers system-wide during last year’s holiday season, and executives say the number of seasonal hires may inch upward this year to meet customer demand.

The airport itself doesn’t staff up to meet the surge in cargo — handling all of those boxes is the carriers’ problem — but staffers need to work through some complex parking and unloading issues at the cargo ramp north of the passenger terminal. The big challenges come during the 6-8 p.m. hours when cargo traffic is typically at its peak.

“Our operations team has to be creative in who parks where,” says Pratte.

Along with FedEx, UPS provides dedicated domestic air-cargo service to Reno. DHL provides international cargo service, and some passenger aircraft also handle a bit of cargo in their bellies.

The holiday surge in cargo traffic doesn’t necessarily mean more flights into Reno-Tahoe International, says Pratte. Instead, carriers typically use larger aircraft while keeping total numbers of flights essentially unchanged.

During the holiday season, cargo aircraft account for somewhere between 20 and 22 percent of the “landed weight” of aircraft arriving at Reno-Tahoe International. That compares with about 15 percent the rest of the year.

Landed weight is an important metric at the airport because it determines the fees that carriers pay to use facilities at Reno-Tahoe International.

The share paid by cargo carriers helps reduce the costs paid by passenger carriers, says airport spokesman Brian Kulpin. And as the airport seeks to attract more passenger service, lower operating costs for carriers provide a competitive advantage for Reno.

While airport executives expect to see continued growth in the cargo business as e-commerce plays a larger role in the region’s economy, they don’t foresee a day when Reno-Tahoe International handles a busy schedule of air-cargo flights.

“It’s never going to be a cargo hub,” says Kulpin.