Biden Administration criticised over cargo infrastructure investment failures

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In response to the recent announcement of US$970 million in grants for airport improvements across the United States, Brandon Fried, Executive Director of the Airforwarders Association (AfA) has been vocal in his criticism over how this substantial funding has yet to be designated for critical enhancements in cargo areas to alleviate truck congestion. 

While acknowledging investments in terminals, concourses, and baggage-handling systems are undoubtedly important, the AfA is clear that neglecting the urgent needs of cargo infrastructure is a missed opportunity that directly impacts the efficiency and competitiveness of our nation’s air cargo industry.

“The Biden administration has been reluctant to allocate specific funding to cargo sector improvements because, despite acknowledging the importance of infrastructure investments, they have primarily focused on passenger-related infrastructure such as terminals, concourses, and baggage-handling systems,” Fried stated.

“There seems to be a lack of recognition regarding the urgent need for cargo infrastructure and the significant impact it has on the efficiency and competitiveness of the nation’s air cargo industry.”

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Costing cargo

“Air cargo carriers, as well as commercial service passenger carriers, and all other aeronautical users of the airport, benefit from funds granted for improvements to runways, taxiways, and other airside safety-related needs at the airport,” a US Department of Transportation stated.

“Since 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has awarded 473 grants worth over $510 million in cargo funding, with the vast majority of those funds used for capital improvements that benefit all users of the airport including cargo specific carriers. 

“The FAA has also award 80 grants under AIP for US$394 million to airport sponsors in direct support of projects related to air cargo operations, with the majority of funding going to the rehabilitation and expansion of cargo specific aprons.”

However, the AfA warned that the reluctance to prioritise funding directly for cargo infrastructure reflects a long-standing issue where airfreight has often been seen as secondary to passenger air travel. 

Cargo infrastructure improvements have not received the same level of attention and funding as passenger-related infrastructure despite the air cargo industry’s vital role in facilitating trade and driving economic growth.

“It is difficult to provide an exact figure, but the financial impact of challenges around cargo infrastructure and delays faced by trucking and freight forwarders can be significant,” Fried warned.

“Excruciating waits of seven to nine hours during the pandemic, and still around two hours currently, add unnecessary costs and inefficiencies to supply chain operations and hinder the timely delivery of goods. 

“These delays can result in increased transportation costs, lost revenue due to delayed shipments, and potential penalties for missed deadlines.

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America’s place at risk

The restrictions on the cargo sector due to infrastructure challenges have undoubtedly impacted America’s place as a global airfreight hub. While the United States has historically been a key player in the air cargo industry, delays and inefficiencies caused by outdated infrastructure have diminished its competitiveness compared to modern hubs like those in the Middle East. These challenges may shift air cargo routes and operations to more efficient and reliable hubs, resulting in a loss of market share and influence for American airports.

“Rectifying the challenges in the cargo sector will require significant time and investment,” Fried accepted. “While the exact timeline depends on various factors such as the extent of funding allocated, the complexity of infrastructure projects, and regulatory processes, it’s reasonable to expect that substantial improvements could take several years to materialise. 

“Even with adequate funding, addressing long-standing infrastructure challenges may require a phased approach and ongoing maintenance to ensure sustained progress.

“There is hope that Secretary Buttigieg and President Biden will heed the warnings from the industry and recognise the importance of supporting the air cargo sector. The concerns raised by the US Airforwarders Association (AfA) and the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA) highlight critical issues that require attention to maintain the competitiveness of the nation’s air cargo industry. 

“However, given the historical prioritisation of passenger-related infrastructure and the complexity of infrastructure funding and policy decisions, there may be challenges in shifting priorities and securing the necessary support for cargo sector improvements. Continued advocacy and collaboration between industry stakeholders and government officials will be essential to ensure that the necessary changes are made to effectively support the air cargo sector.”