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The US is moving to improve cargo flows through airports. Having allocated funding to beef up infrastructure and capacity at the US gateways for seafreight, the administration has now set its sights on airports. It is also moving to recruit more traffic controllers to ease constraints on flights at busy airports.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorisation Act, which earmarks $105bn over four years to improve air traffic control, airport operations and infrastructure. The measure is designed to tackle constraints that have impeded traffic development; make the system safer and better equipped to withstand future disruptions; and accommodate growth.

Included in the package is $19.35bn for airport infrastructure improvement grants. Some of this money will be aimed at improvements for airfreight.

“This is a major step forward in addressing the cargo congestion problem that has existed for quite some time at many airports across the country,” said Bob Imbriani, president of the Airforwarders Association (AfA).

Brandon Fried, the AfA’s executive director, noted that during the pandemic, forwarders sometimes waited seven hours at airports to drop off or pick up cargo.

“Even though volumes have normalised, we’re still getting reports from members that they waited 2-1/2 hours,” he continued. “This legislation is music to our ears.”

He pointed out that in a round of funding a few years ago the airlines asked for $115bn from Washington and ended up with $25bn, and “cargo was not even mentioned”.

The AfA concluded that it had to mount a lobbying effort in Washington. It joined forces with the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association and surveyed over 400 stakeholders from the various facets of the air cargo sector, which resulted in a 65-page white paper. Armed with this, the organisations made their case to both houses of Congress and won support for their agenda.

The legislation calls for the General Accountability Office to conduct a large-scale assessment of air cargo operations in the US, which will take about a year to complete.

At this point there is no clear indication how much money will be directed towards air cargo.

“We estimate $4bn to $6bn should take care of this. This is what airport consultants who are involved in the project think is reasonable,” Mr Fried said.

Specific measures will vary from one airport to the next, given their different challenges. Those may range from antiquated road systems designed before 53ft trucks became common, to labour issues or outdated technology, he remarked.

One of the key objectives of the legislation is to remedy the overburdened air traffic control system. In a statement last summer IATA noted that US airlines had to reduce their schedules by 10% earlier in the year, as the number of traffic controllers was so far below the necessary level that it posed a challenge to maintaining the continuity of operations.

In January, Airlines for America, the US airline interest group, stated that the number of controllers was 3,000 short of FAA targets and 10% lower than in 2012.

A full complement of traffic controllers would allow airports like Washington National to rescind flight restrictions. In addition, it would improve aviation safety, an issue that is viewed with renewed urgency after several incidents and near-misses this year, not to mention safety concerns associated with quality issues at Boeing. In addition to recruiting more traffic controllers, the new legislation also calls for the deployment of advanced airport surface technology to help prevent collisions.

One further aspect of the legislation of relevance to cargo is the green light for Boeing to extend production of its B767 freighter for another five years. By then, the plane may be in hotter demand than right now.

Check out today’s Loadstar Podcast, featuring Hapag-Lloyd and Seko Logistics

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