In 2020 and 2021, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport benefitted from the global trend that saw shippers increasing their reliance on air-cargo services in the face of a choked ocean-transportation system.

JFK’s year-over-year growth rate spiked to a high of 61.6% in April 2021, but since has been on the decline, reaching negative levels in May 2022, when it shrank by 10.4%, followed by 12.0% decreases each in June and July.

For a good portion of the twentieth century, JFK was the busiest air-cargo hub in the world. But in 2021, JFK ranked #8 for air-cargo tonnage among U.S. airports, down from #3 in 2000, and saw volumes decrease by over 30% during that period. Now that the pandemic flash in the pan appears to be over, the question is whether JFK can reverse its decades-long decline as an air-cargo industry leader.

Many of JFK’s problems stem from the nightmarish conditions truckers must endure to access the airport’s cargo facilities. A recent Rutgers University study showed that 95% of freight forwarders, brokers, airlines, and truckers rated wait times as poor or extremely poor at JFK, and 85% said wait times were worse or much worse than other airports. Issues cited in the study included inefficient dock scheduling, on-site congestion, and the lack of a communication system to let truckers know when cargo is ready for pickup.

“We work from our off-airport location to satisfy an unrealistic 24-hour pickup window and risk incurring costly storage fees,” said Mike DeVivo, president of M.R.Z. Trucking Corporation, which serves shippers at JFK.

The Rutgers study explored implementing an airport-wide Truck Flow Management System (TFMS) to streamline cargo operations, a move that DeVivo supports. “There must be a serious effort to expand, modernize and fully integrate the cargo handling facilities on the airport,” he said.

A TFMS would reduce truck dwell time by 38% and save as much as $16 million a year in direct trucking costs annually, the Rutgers study found, by reducing man-hours and fuel consumption.

“Implementing a TFMS airport-wide can play an important role in reversing JFK airport’s lost market share,” said Frank Liggio, board chair of GatewayJFK, a business improvement district representing the off-airport cargo community, and a sponsor of the Rutgers study. “New York’s air cargo sector has the potential to grow with industry trends and not miss out on the opportunity to preserve and increase jobs.”

JFK’s cargo infrastructure is in the process of being improved—a new cargo building is scheduled to open in 2024, expansions of access and on-airport roads are in progress, and a reconfiguration of cargo operations is on the drawing boards. But these are no substitute for “an integrated, airport-wide communications system for cargo,” said Liggio. “The existing cargo-management technology at JFK is not reflective of the available technology in today’s marketplace.”

JFK’s cargo operations need updating on many levels. But it remains to be seen if the improvements underway can restore the airport to its former glory, or just allow it to play catch-up.