While not a well-known airport to air travelers, Rockford International Airport (RFD) has a well-deserved reputation for being air freight friendly that has contributed to the airport’s rapid rise as an air cargo hub.

Prime Air taking off at Rockford International Airport in Illinois

At first glance, Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) with its one passenger airline, Allegiant, flying to US sunspots, seems like a lonely cousin to brawny Chicago O’Hare. But logistics savvy shippers and air cargo executives around the world know better.

While 68 miles north of the Windy City’s perpetually congested flagship monster-port, Chicago Rockford has 10 freighter airlines with 55 flight operations daily without the delays that often plague passenger- belly freight combi carriers.

“Chicago Rockford is my favorite airport,” Dennel Forster, senior vice president of operations and procurements in the Americas for the global logistics giant DB Schenker, told the American Journal of Transportation. “It is a 99% cargo airport, and their attitude is ‘whatever it takes, we will do it.’ They are flexible, creative, have no bureaucracy and no multiple layers to get to the right person to get the job done. We have a personal relationship with the airport, and, during the pandemic, it just simply worked.

Peter Weir was on the team that set up Amazon’s air freight warehousing and distribution facility at Chicago Rockford eight years ago. “I found them to be so cargo friendly then and later I came back to establish the Menzies Aviation station,” says Weir, senior vice president, cargo, Americas for the worldwide ground handling company. “Chicago Rockford is also a pilot’s dream. There is no vector approach. You can make a direct landing and be on the stand in as fast as five minutes.”

He further says it is Menzies Aviation’s goal to help attract more Midwest flights and freight to its new 60,000 square warehousing facility at Chicago Rockford and that the airport is coming through with the enticements. “Their import fees are $50 cheaper, they have a good, strong, stable labor force and good administration. Indeed, if you have a secondary airport that is good enough for Amazon and good enough for UPS, it’s good for any all-cargo freighter airline.”

UPS apparently thinks highly of Chicago Rockford; it serves as the integrator’s second largest hub in North America (Louisville, Kentucky ranks first), according to Ken Ryan, the airport’s director of cargo. UPS can reach 100 operations daily during the Christmas holidays, he estimates and has about 80 operations at the moment.

Ken Ryan

Regional Gateway for Amazon Air

Chicago Rockford is a regional gateway for Amazon Air’s 767 freighters, also known as Prime Air, says Zack Oakley, the airport’s deputy director of operations and planning. Amazon has a 200,000 square foot warehousing and sort center for its e-commerce traffic on the airport.

In addition, RFD also has three new cargo buildings totaling 240,000 square feet that sit inside the fence on the 2900-acre airport property.

Chicago’s third airport also serves international air freighter operators such as Maersk Air that has eight flights weekly from Europe and Asia. Other air freight airlines that call on RFD include National Air, Atlas Air Freight and Magma.

Emery Air, Inc. has played a big role in Chicago Rockford’s success. “As the airport’s first and only ground handler until early this year, Emery invested millions of dollars in equipment and personnel to get RFD up and running for the arrival of international cargo flights,” says Ryan. Emery has leased 190,000 square feet in cargo buildings one and two.

Surprisingly, Chicago Rockford, which bills itself on its website as the “fastest growing cargo airport on the planet,” currently does not handle perishable cargoes. It has no temperature-controlled warehouses on its premises. Most of that traffic moves through Chicago O’Hare. But RFD could get in the game quickly. “Both Emery and Maersk have the budgets and are ready to pull the trigger on adding coolers as its customers demand,” Oakley says.

He notes that the Envirotainer, a mobile chiller, requires no extensive infrastructure to deploy—simply plug-in power which has already been installed in RFD’s on-airport warehouses. If and when that happens, Oakley stressed the airport would likely be a go-to target for European pharmaceutical shippers rather than fruits, vegetables, and fresh seafood from Latin America that historically move through Miami

It could be happening sooner than later. “We’re in discussions with pharmaceutical manufacturing companies in India who are interested in working with us in Rockford,” says Oakley.

Meanwhile, Chicago Rockford officials say they have no problems recruiting and retaining labor. “We’re in a much better position than many of the bigger guys because we don’t have turnover,” he continues. While he adds that new-to-the airport workers often must deal with weekend, nighttime, holiday, and harsh weather shifts –RFD is open 24/7 and there is no curfew, an advantage to shippers and carriers—the labor force in the area have been primed for what to expect on the job.

Zack Oakley

UPS Impact on RFD

“Thank God for UPS which has been on the airport since 1994 and has trained literally thousands of people in the Rockford area.” Oakley says carriers and ground handlers have a rich pool of workers—full-timers, part-timers and seasonals—to hire as demand peaks and valleys.

At the moment, Ryan, cargo director, says air cargo business at RFD, like most of the industry, has been “flat,” following the pandemic when freighters worldwide were pressed into service because many belly freight combi carriers were grounded due to a sharp slowdown in passenger travel. However, he sees one “bright spot” in cargo today that can directly benefit his airport and its freighter and integrator tenants—e-commerce. “It’s the volume at the moment.”

RFD’s leadership is in the planning stages for additional expansion. The one-time military airfield that later became a passenger airport for budget travelers is leveraging its strength and success as an all-cargo airport. Preliminary designs for a fourth on-tarmac warehouse building envisions a structure from 300,000 to 500,000 square feet. It would include additional parking positions for six 747-8 freighters.

“The building would be highly automated and designed to handle the high-value cargoes be it perishables, pharmaceuticals, e-commerce, anything temperature-controlled,” explains Oakley. “It will really be designed to reduce time on that freight spends on the airport and increase throughput. It will make us a ‘smart airport’ for the whole Midwest.”

As part of its “smart airport” strategy, RFD is also rolling out what it calls a Cargo Community System, designed by Kale, which is an effort that essentially digitally tracks the movement of a shipment throughout the logistics chain and connecting at the moment with the warehouse systems of Emory Air and Menzies Aviation, says Ryan. The system includes a Truck Slot Management program to allow a truck to arrive at a warehouse door at a pre-scheduled time and pick up or drop off freight without waiting and burning fuel and wasting driver time. Still, he adds, “there is no congestion problem here at Rockford (Airport) and our Cargo Community System is being used to sort of frontload the trucking pickup and delivery process and prevent bottlenecks.”

Adds Oakley: “By cutting down the long periods of idling time, you’re talking about saving fuel and reducing carbons in the air. Sustainability throughout the airport is a very high priority with us.”