By Gene Linn, AJOT

Can smaller airports with little international traffic find ways to grab a piece of the direct flights for international cargo handled by traditional gateways like Chicago’s O’Hare? That was the question before the 2005 Great Plains Regional Air Cargo Conference on May 23 in Kansas City. Basically, the answer given by conference speakers was - “Maybe, but it won’t be quick or easy.”

Incentive to lure direct international cargo flights is clear, according to experts at the conference. George Hamlin, director of consultant

MergeGlobal, said 20% annual air cargo growth between Asia and North America will help fuel robust global expansion of about six percent a year for the next four years. Some industry estimates are even higher. “In the next 15 years, international air cargo volume is set to triple,” said Daniel Gadow, head of Midwest Regional Operations for Air France Cargo. “It’s a stable growth in business for the next 15 to 20 years. Which part of that will you see?”

Opportunities for smaller airports seem clear because air cargo is expanding strongly at the same time that some major cargo hubs have little room to grow. “A number of the main gateways are at or past their capacity,” said Dave McInerney, chief of USA-Midwest for Lufthansa. Speakers noted that O’Hare has little free space left, and LAX at Los Angeles is plagued by road congestion.

Sometimes smaller airports fail to take advantage of their opportunities, said Mark VanLoh, director of the Kansas City Aviation Department. “We may be so focused on passenger growth and getting Southwest (Airlines) to the airport that we ignore air cargo,” he said. Kansas City International Airport (KCI) looks determined to avoid that mistake. The conference spoke about smaller inland airports in general, but the obvious unstated question was: “Can Kansas City take direct international cargo flights from Chicago and other traditional gateways?” The focus is understandable given the location of the event and the fact that KCI was a co-host along with the American Association of Airport Executives.

VanLoh asserted that Kansas City is well placed to compete for international cargo. In addition to its central location, he said, “With 11,000 acres at KCI, we are one of the last airports in the country with plenty of room to grow.” Three major highways and a strong local transportation industry led by Yellow Transportation and Kansas City Southern Railway enhance Kansas City’s attractiveness, according to VanLoh.

Gadow of Air France agreed that Kansas City airport’s lack of congestion is a “selling point. “The facility’s relatively low costs are also a positive, he said, especially in light of a 50% drop in yields for air cargo carriers in the last 10 years. But he indicated that Kansas City, and other smaller inland airports, have a tough selling job ahead.

“I wish I had a killer announcement (about bringing cargo flights to Kansas City), but choosing markets is a balancing act for us,” Gadow said. Air France cargo that goes through Kansas City now is mostly consolidated at established facilities in Chicago and Dallas. “Exiting Chicago and Dallas would be a big jump for us.”

Lufthansa’s McInerney lauded the “great potential” of the Kansas City - St. Louis market. “We’d love to see this specific market develop further,” he said. But he said it would be important for Kansas City to first attract passenger flights with a strong European passenger base. About 40% of the cargo carried by the German flag carrier comes in the bellies of passenger planes. He said Lufthansa’s decision would be built on a complex, detailed list of factors, such as presence of a core cargo customer, costs and infrastructure. “It’s a long, drawn out process to put in that first flight,” he said.

Some positive notes

One indication that Kansas City’s obstacles are formidable came from the city’s own communications giant, Sprint PCS. The company, which ships some $3 billion worth of mobile phones and other goods each year, is fully sa