Efficient and sustainable air cargo operations are in high demand. Airports, airlines, operators and developers are working to keep pace with the continuous growth of e-commerce as consumers, during a pandemic, opt to shop online rather than visit physical stores.

The shift from business-to-business movement of goods to a business-to-consumer model results in fewer container shipments and volumes that are more pallet sized and less dense. This shift also dramatically reduces the typical supply chain from months to weeks. The drop in belly capacity — the space in lower decks of international and domestic aircraft commonly used for cargo — and increasing volatility of maritime cargo movement have also led to supply chain disruptions.

These changes have forced businesses and facilities around the world to adapt to an evolving landscape. Products are being delivered to remote locations or right to suburban front doors in record times and with increasing reliability. The industry has also pivoted to support the bulk movement of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. With such a variety of products being shipped and expectations for increased flexibility and speed, it is critical for the industry to understand the nuances of air cargo operations to support sustainable growth for not only the growing e-commerce world, but a world that can be changed overnight by a pandemic.

Air cargo encompasses a variety of operations that rely on specific facility types. Conventional air cargo facilities support the larger, bulk moving of goods and remain the backbone of the world air cargo industry. Cargo integrators, or overnight parcel delivery facilities, are used to coordinate the distribution of smaller goods to finite locations. Preighters — passenger planes with seats removed to make room for cargo — made an appearance when airline passenger figures dipped throughout the pandemic and cargo demand remained high. While preighters have been clutch for reacting quickly to shipment needs and may stay around for a while, it is likely they will not provide the same capacity they did in 2020 as passenger volumes return.

Air Cargo Essentials

Regardless of air cargo facility type, there are many aspects that are key to delivering a successful facility. All air cargo operations need to consider airside operations, such as large ramp areas, aircraft maintenance and fueling areas, storm drainage, and tug and dolly operations. They also must factor in landside operations like truck yards and staging, ground support equipment maintenance areas and courier parking. All facilities will need a roller deck for container movement, equipment for weighing and dimensioning, and structural floor slabs designed for operating equipment such as a forklift.

Facility Differentiators

When determining what sort of air cargo facilities are needed, it is essential to understand the unique factors of conventional air cargo and overnight parcel delivery facilities. Here are some of the key differentiators:

  • Conventional air cargo: The bulk movement of goods requires a warehouse, as well as direct access from landside to airside through Transportation Security Administration and airport-approved security portals. Security infrastructure should be flexible to allow access points to be added or modified as the needs and number of cargo operators evolve, and to leverage new and future technologies. These facilities often need space for pallet buildup and breakdown stations with lowerators to keep stacking work at optimal waste-high ergonomic positions. As volumes and types of cargo vary, conventional air cargo facilities could benefit from automated storage and retrieval systems and multilevel container handling and storage systems. While these factors prompt new permitting requirements, they can streamline operations once in place.
  • Overnight parcel delivery: These facilities rely heavily on automated and proprietary package sorting systems to make good on the promise of fast delivery. This means there can be no disruption to operations. On-site power generation for redundancy and strong IT/telecom services are essential. Facilities also find value in spare ground support equipment.

Facility requirements differ depending on the types of material being handled. One facility may require freezer and cooler storage, while another may need the ability to store hazardous materials or accommodate livestock.

The air cargo industry needs to build in flexibility for emerging trends, new technologies and shifting demands. Historically, air cargo facilities have been developed on large land parcels that facilitate single-story layouts with direct access between the landside dock, warehouse and airside aircraft ramp. As land at airports — particularly at urban distribution locations — becomes scarce and expensive, new concepts are emerging that facilitate smaller site development. Developments are being evaluated with a multilevel warehouse with traffic monitoring software and remote truck staging to relieve urban traffic congestion. Future air cargo facilities should also accommodate for a shift in the surface equipment fueling source from diesel or gas to electric. Autonomous equipment is also being developed for use in the warehouse and on the airside ramp. Forward-looking concepts include autonomous trucks for deliveries to the landside docks.

Effective and efficient operations at air cargo facilities will improve daily operations and have a significant impact on global economic development. The economy relies heavily on the capability to transport valuable products rapidly to consumers around the world. With such influence, facility owners and developers see value in partnering with a full-service team to build or upgrade facilities. A full-service team provides access to experience to address all the nuances of air cargo facilities, from airside infrastructure and truck staging yards to traffic studies, facility design and construction, material handling, automation, and commissioning.


As air cargo continues to grow and evolve, the industry is modernizing to help accommodate this growth and plan for the future.

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Andy Wozniak spearheads the delivery and continued growth of integrated design and construction services for a diverse range of industries, including manufacturing, air cargo, life science and food and consumer products. He leads the Burns & McDonnell Chicago facilities regional practice and has over 15 years of management experience, leading facility projects worldwide for multinational corporations and government agencies.