Air freight is taking off at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.
Business through May this year was 31 percent ahead of where it was during the same period in 2017, and cargo tonnage flown out of the airport monthly is about twice what it was two years ago.
Operations handled by logistics firm Senator International have outgrown their 20,000-square-foot warehouse, and the airport is clearing land now for a 100,000-square-foot facility set to open by spring 2019, said Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport President Dave Edwards.
“This isn’t, ‘Build it and they will come,'” Edwards said. “We need it right now.”
The investment is significant in an age of advanced manufacturing with highly integrated supply chains and just-in-time production of custom goods. Such as BMWs. Or MRI machines made by Siemens.
The increase in cargo traffic has also boosted the airport’s bottom line, with annual revenue jumping from $28.4 million in 2016 to a projected $40.7 million this coming year — an increase of 44 percent, according to a Greenville News analysis of airport audit and budget figures.
Edwards said the airport does not distinguish between its passenger and cargo revenue, saying the airport world uses a “single cash-register system.” Passenger traffic accounted for more than 50,000 flights out of the airport, compared with about 1,000 for cargo. But the marked increase in cargo compared with modest increases in passenger traffic suggest freight has played a significant role in the airport’s growth.
To that end, Edwards and his management team at the airport are doubling down on cargo, with a $30 million expansion over the next six months of their cargo operation. This includes $13 million for the new warehouse and another $17 million to install a 15-acre “apron,” essentially a concrete pad, to accommodate more cargo aircraft.
Sean Hildebrand, the operations manager for automotive at Senator International, said his logistics company is limited to a day shift and flight crew at present.
“We started with two flights a week back in 2016,” Hildebrand said. “Now it’s four to five a week. The warehouse aspect is going to push us into a multishift operation. Once we do that, it will basically be 24-7.”
BMW cannot afford to stop production lines at its plant in Greer when overseas supply lines come up short, Edwards said.
He learned firsthand about seven years ago how seriously the German automaker takes its logistics operations when BMW came to him and asked for assistance. Before that, GSP had never handled heavy cargo, he said.
“There were some problems with some shipping, freighters coming across the Atlantic, and they had to get some transmissions here quickly to keep the line moving,” Edwards said.
Fortunately for all involved, the airport had spent $1 million the year before, in 2010, on cargo-handling equipment — tugs, dollies and loaders, Edwards said.
Cargo tonnage flown out of GSP airport rose steadily until 2016 and then doubled, largely due to stepped-up business from BMW. (Photo: Greenville Spartanburg International Airport)
“We had 11 or 12 charter flights … over a period of four to six months, and all that went well,” Edwards said. “That was a proof of concept for us to prove we could handle large aircraft, freighters with product, transmissions.”
Fast forward to 2016, and that’s when Senator International secured a contract from BMW to handle its air freight for imports and exports, said Hildebrand. Up to that point, BMW used an airport in Huntsville, Alabama, for imports and trucked everything to Spartanburg County. At the time, Senator handled only exports for BMW to Germany.
“BMW wanted a closer aspect, something in their own backyard,” Hildebrand said.
Senator International, which is German-owned, set up its so-called “Atlantic Bridge” flights after securing BMW’s import-export contract and embarked on a couple flights a week from GSP to Hahn airport in Germany. Those flights have since expanded to four or five a week on Senator International’s own 747 — a plane that can carry up to 110 tons.
“We pretty much fill that up in every flight,” Hildebrand said, adding that 80 to 90 percent of cargo belongs to BMW.
Senator also announced last month that it had added Sunday-Monday flights between GSP and Queretaro Airport to support a BMW plant near Mexico City.
In addition to parts needed on occasion to keep the line going at the BMW plant in Greer, the Atlantic Bridge flights maintain a flow of BMW spare parts back and forth, Hildebrand said. Senator International loads up trucks that bring parts to distribution centers in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida and Lancaster, Texas.
“These are spare parts for customers,” Hildebrand said.
Having observed BMW’s cargo operation at GSP, other German manufacturers have also signed on, said Edwards and Hildebrand.
Dräxlmaier, which makes car interiors and electrical systems, uses Senator, as does Siemens, which uses the flights to ship MRI machines. Last week, Senator International also met with Bosch, which has plants in Fountain Inn and Anderson.
“They are looking at jumping aboard the flight,” Hildebrand said.
The airport has also stepped forward as the port of entry for more than 550 horses competing in this fall’s World Equestrian Games in Mill Spring, North Carolina.
As for the emerging trade war that has affected prices on a range of raw materials and components, Edwards said it’s too early to tell what impact, if any, that will have on the import-export business.
“If they have an impact on manufacturing in our region, we will have some negative impact on the movement of product in and out of GSP, which is something we obviously don’t want to see,” Edwards said. “When you look at all the jobs associated with manufacturing in the Upstate, it’s a huge impact.”
Anna B. Mitchell, The Greenville News