Expansion also promises growth in international airfreight.
It must have been music to the ears of economic development and airport folks in the Greensboro-High Point area of North Carolina. Over the summer, Honda Aircraft Company announced groundbreaking on an expansion of its facility at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro. The expansion will allow a major increase in production at a factory where wings for the company’s corporate jets are assembled and add storage for service parts for the company’s fleet of HondaJets around the globe.
Expected to be completed next summer, and representing a $15.5 million investment, Honda Aircraft’s expansion is helping to make the region one of the fastest growing aviation hubs in the country. HondaJet has been headquartered in Greensboro for over ten years.
“Most traditional airports function as a place for transportation of people and cargo, and that is important for us, too,” said Kevin Baker, executive director of the PTI Airport Authority. “The other aspect of it for us is as a place of employment.”
That employment is increasingly concentrated in the aerospace sector, as well as logistics. The airport contributes $6 billion to the local economy and is responsible for the generation of 25,500 jobs.
Besides HondaJet, other aerospace companies located at PTI include Haeco Americas and Cessna. Haeco Americas, founded in 1990 and headquartered in Greensboro, supports carriers flying Boeing and Airbus aircraft with maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and engineering services, as well as cabin interiors. Cessna’s on-airport facility in Greensboro customizes business aircraft interiors with services that include floor plan reconfiguration, custom cabinetry, upholstery, carpeting, and seating.
On the logistics side, FedEx Express operates a regional hub on-airport to support the company’s super-hub in Memphis and national hub in Indianapolis. Its building measures 593,000 square feet and the facility occupies 165 acres. DHL, UPS, and several freight forwarders occupy locations adjacent to the airport.
“We currently handle one flight per day out of Memphis and we’ll get an Indianapolis flight back in December,” said Frank Heeman, the FedEx Express manager of ramp operations. “We are able to take pressure off of Memphis and relieve stress to the network. We can cover a lot of the East Coast from here, from Newark, New Jersey, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”
The Greensboro hub had been underutilized since 2009 and until last year, when FedEx announced it was doubling the number of workers at the hub to 800. In addition to its national hubs and Greensboro, FedEx Express operates regional hubs in Fort Worth, Newark, and Oakland. Greensboro is currently the smallest of its hubs, but word has it that FedEx has plans to double its footprint in the area.
PTI Airport (also known by its FAA call letters GSO) currently has one-thousand unoccupied acres under various stages of site preparation. Not surprisingly, the airport authority is looking for aerospace and logistics companies to fill that space. The airport has at least one hot prospect for some of the land in the form of a supersonic business jet company, whose identity could not be revealed.
The airport authority is targeting original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), transportation and logistics companies, and maintenance operations as users of its spare acreage. Companies in these fields, Baker noted, offer many salaries between $60,000 and $75,000 per year, well above the regional average household income of $45,000.
“Companies couldn’t find five airports in the country that have the same set of assets,” said Baker. “Geographically we are in the middle of the East Coast, halfway between Atlanta and Washington and halfway between Miami and New York. Seventy-five percent of the country’s population is within 600 miles of here, making it a great jumping off point.
“Any of those kinds of companies would be the ultimate home run for us,” Baker added. “We are developing the land in a way that we can accommodate users who need 50 acres or 500 acres. We can set it up for almost any user.”
Development of the empty acreage to date has included extending sewer and water lines to the area, as well as building a new taxiway from one of the airport’s runways to the area under development. Site preparation work has been completed on 200 acres—where the land is ready for construction—a figure that is expected to reach a total of 500 acres within a year.
The new taxiway, which passes over a local highway, has been derided as a bridge to nowhere, but Baker defends the decision to build it on the grounds that the airport wants the site to be ready when companies want to occupy it. “A company might decide it wants to locate there in two years and building the bridge could take three, and the environmental impact statement is done,” he said. “We want to make sure that economic development people can go out and have a product they can sell.”
The airport authority receives no tax revenues, Baker also noted. It generates its revenue from landing fees, rents, and concessions.
Air cargo has had its ups and downs in recent years, but the trend of late at PTI is on the upswing. Cargo handled at the airport has grown 65 percent year over year thus far in 2019. Although PTI is the third-largest airport in North Carolina in terms of capacity, it has emerged as the number-one cargo airport, according to a recent report from the state Department of Transportation, edging out Charlotte and handling 21 percent more cargo than Raleigh-Durham.
Baker expects international cargo to be a big part of the airport’s future growth, saying that the location is well-suited to serving European markets with all-cargo flights. He points to the fact that HondaJet will be storing six-million parts on airport for the benefit of its branded jet fleet worldwide and that the Piedmont Triad itself is not a small market, encompassing as it does 12 counties and a population of 1.7 million people.
Already, international cargo makes up 21 percent of the freight handled at the airport. “When you consider that we are a secondary market,” said Baker, “that’s huge.”
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