Southwest Louisiana’s Chennault International Airport is a large aviation property. The former Air Force base has a 2-mile-long runway, newly refurbished parallel taxiway and 60 acres of concrete tarmac. But when it comes to commercial aircraft activity, it’s puny.
The airport, located in Lake Charles, has become a center for maintenance, repair and overhaul work, but other than a random charter flight carrying a large piece of equipment for the local oil patch, there isn’t any cargo business.
State and local officials, who want to expand the range of aviation services at Chennault and make it an economic hub, are trying to lure air cargo companies interested in an alternative to more crowded airports.
Last week Chennault broke ground on a $4 million, 10,000-square-foot cargo warehouse specializing in the consolidation and deconsolidation of imports and exports. Three-quarters of the funding was earmarked by the Legislature, with the balance paid by the Chennault International Airport Authority.
Officials said they are looking for ground handling companies interested in leasing the facility and marketing it to cargo airlines and logistics companies.
They are pitching the airport as a cheaper, faster option for freight that currently moves through large gateways that have significant amounts of passenger traffic, often resulting in long ground delays to reach the runway, air traffic delays for landing and long distances to reach the cargo terminals.
Executive Director Kevin Melton mentioned George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, a two-hour drive to the west, as a location with traffic issues.
“We can bring a heavily incentivized cost to operate out of here,” he said in an interview. “I guarantee you I can get you from the runway to your parking spot a whole heck of a lot quicker than they ever could at any of those locations. And every minute counts when it comes to air cargo.”
Houston isn’t generally one of the airports logistics managers mention when talking about cargo congestion around the country, which often involves stuffed cargo terminals and trucking infrastructure problems. Businesses thinking about Chennault, which doesn’t have any passenger operations, would have to weigh a few extra minutes on the tarmac against a long truck drive to, and from, Lake Charles.
Chennault has retained David Whitaker as a consultant to help identify potential industry partners in the time ahead. Whitaker spent 22 years at the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, most recently as chief commercial officer, before retiring two years ago. The CRAA operates two air facilities in Ohio, including cargo-centric Rickenbacker International Airport. Whitaker played a major role moving Rickenbacker into scheduled cargo service, starting with Cargolux in 2012.
Apparel was Rickenbacker’s initial base cargo, but the airport now facilitates trade in many types of commodities. Last year, it welcomed nearly 1,000 all-cargo flights.
Secondary airports have become increasingly popular, especially in the past year when intense airfreight volumes have jammed up big hubs such as Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, New York JFK and Miami. Many freight forwarders are directing chartered freighters to Rickenbacker; Chicago Rockford; Pittsburgh; Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina; San Bernardino, California, and other airports.
Trying to start cargo business at a smaller airport outside major population or industrial centers is a tall order, air cargo professionals say.
But Michael Webber, a consultant who focuses on cargo-related airport development, said Chennault’s speculative investment is worth the risk because it is starting small.
“They need to make the case on what their origin-destination market is. But it’s modest in size. Nobody is going to be too badly condemned for building a 10,000-square-foot facility on spec. So, it’s probably an OK venture.
“Build it as flexible as possible and put in as little customized equipment as possible and they ought to be fine,” he added.
The head of Webber Air Cargo recommended that Chennault look to bring in some other distribution business, such as from local trucking companies or overflow from the Port of Lake Charles, that needs storage to help cover the rent while the air cargo business builds up.
Construction of the Chennault cargo facility is expected to take 12 to 18 months.
Among the service providers at Chennault is Landlocked Aviation, an aircraft painting company that has refinished planes for Delta Air LInes (NYSE: DAL), UPS Airlines and Amazon Air, among others. Another company, Citadel Completions, is installing interiors on Embraer jets for startup carrier Breeze.