Shipping load containers on the runway at PHL

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Think holiday air travel is bonkers? Consider what it’s like for packages. For every person who flies across the country to see far flung relatives, there’s dozens of people — if not hundreds — who send gifts in lieu of an IRL visit.

The sheer volume of parcel traffic is obvious if you peek inside the cargo facility at Philadelphia International Airport. In the weeks leading up to the end of the year, the 400,000-square-foot shipping center is buzzing with something the pros call “controlled chaos.”

On their way to drop off the heavy stuff, forklifts weave around thousands of frantic cargo workers tasked with sorting packages by weight and ultimate destination.

“It can be a little crazy at times,” admitted Brian Cooley, GM of cargo service at Philly’s American Airlines hub. “Different seasons have different types of peaks, and the Christmas peak is like every type of peak combined.”

During the December holidays, cargo carriers see roughly 40% more traffic, Cooley said. To handle the influx, managers of the American Airlines, Fedex and UPS cargo facilities at PHL lease hundreds of extra trailers and hire thousands of seasonal employees.

It’s even tougher for the workers right now, because PHL’s cargo warehouse is in dire need of an overhaul.

“You always see a big spike in cargo,” Jim Tyrrell, the airport’s chief revenue officer, told Billy Penn. “And we just don’t have the facilities currently to handle the capacity we should be.”

Luckily — for both the overwhelmed staff and the Philadelphians who depend on carriers to deliver their gifts on time — more resources are in the pipeline. The city’s airport is on track to open a brand new shipping facility in September 2021.

When it does, PHL’s cargo operations have the potential to expand by a whopping 13 times.

Cargo planes at PHL are loaded full this time of year Credit: Courtesy UPS Philadelphia

A potential $5 billion in annual revenue

About 600,000 tons of freight and mail pass through Philadelphia International Airport in any given year. By Tyrrell’s estimation, that’s not nearly enough.

Philly has the potential to get cargo business from anywhere within a 500-mile radius around the city, he said, an area that includes six states. In total, that region’s shipping industry makes $53 million every year — but PHL only captures 9% of that business. New York’s airports handle a massive 70%.

Even folks whose businesses are just a few miles away from Philly’s airport opt to drive two hours up the turnpike and ship their products there, per Tyrrell.

“At an event, I was sitting next to a gentleman who has a big import/export business at the [Philadelphia Port],” Tyrrell said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I ship them from Newark.’ This is a guy who has a facility less than three miles from where I’m sitting right now.”

So officials are setting out to change that, and turn Philadelphia into a cargo shipping force.

PHL’s new facility will be built about a mile west of the existing one. The first phase of construction alone will cost the airport $250 million, but Tyrell estimates it has the potential to capture at least 10% more of the market — which adds up to $5 billion annually.

“The airport is one of the biggest economic engines in the region,” Tyrrell said. “We’re a good investment.”

Cargo workers, for their part, say a bigger facility would be a huge help — especially during peak gift-giving season.

“We would always welcome more space,” said Cooley, the American Airlines shipping manager. “It definitely helps control how everything goes. If you have the right layout plan, the right flow, the extra space never hurts.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...