The flow of air cargo through Sea-Tac International Airport may soon hit a wall because of the limited on-site cargo facilities at the airport, according to data from a recent study released by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
Sea-Tac is an important gateway for getting products to market for Washington companies. Last year a total of 432,315 metric tons of cargo passed through the airport, up 48% since 2013.
The airport’s near-term Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP), now under environmental review, calls for expanding the Sea-Tac’s air-cargo handling capacity to 809,700 square feet by 2027 by adding 420,000 square feet of off-airport cargo warehousing, according to the PSRC study. However, even with that additional capacity in place, the PSRC projects that the regional demand for air-cargo warehouse space by 2027 will exceed Sea-Tac’s ability to accommodate all of it by nearly 174,000 square feet, and that figure grows to more than 648,000 square feet by 2050, even after accounting for Sea-Tac’s long-term SAMP planning.
A potential fix of diverting more air cargo to Boeing Field in King County, which handles UPS air-freight traffic already, doesn’t appear to be a viable option, given its air-ramp and landside space are limited and the airport has no plans to expand cargo warehousing, according to the PSRC. Complicating matters is the fact that air cargo is carried by both dedicated freight aircraft as well as in the belly of domestic and international commercial aircraft ― so relocating cargo operations away from Sea-Tac would require a rethinking of logistics strategies for freight transporters, such as Amazon’s Prime Air.
“The total cargo split is 68% going by freighter aircraft and 32% in the belly of commercial aircraft,” says Sea-Tac spokesperson Perry Cooper. For international cargo, however, that split is 55% freighter and 45% in the belly of passenger jets, Cooper adds.
State legislation enacted this past spring seeks to address Sea-Tac’s growing capacity woes by establishing a new state commission that is charged with coming up with airport options outside of Sea-Tac. Those options include developing a major new airport outside King County or expanding and/or repurposing a series of existing aviation facilities, according to Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser, who co-sponsored the legislation.
Among the strategies that could be adopted is the creation an airport that is “dedicated to air cargo,” Keiser says.
“One of my goals in this whole process has been to try to separate freight planes, like Prime Air and Fed-Ex, from the passenger-aircraft belly cargo,” Keiser adds. “The freight business is huge and takes a lot of space, and one of the things that Sea-Tac doesn't have is a lot of space.”