by Reed Fawell III
Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation recently assured the public that the air cargo hub planned for Washington Dulles International Airport would generate only light freight traffic in small trucks rather than long-haul tractor-trailer rigs typically found on Interstate highways. That surely must have been news to Dulles Airport CEO Jack Potter and Washington Airports’ Task Force President Leo Schefer. Recall their comments to the South Dulles Alliance as mentioned our article, “A Mortgage on NoVa’s Future“:
One of the big impediments when it comes to development [of Dulles air cargo hub] is our ability to attract outbound cargo,” said Mr Potter. “Part of the problem is there is not an efficient road infrastructure … Yes, you can go around 95 and drive around the Beltway, but when you stop as a business owner looking at the hours you spend to do that, it’s a lot easier to take 81 … down to Atlanta or up … to Kennedy … than it is to come in here because of the road infrastructure.
At the same event, Schefer drilled into the nub of Potter’s dilemma: “Freight companies trying to get to Dulles lose a half million hours per year in traffic at a single intersection, the juncture of Interstate 66 and Route 28.”
This exchange highlights the obvious. A high volume of fully loaded tractor-trailers with quick and reliable access to long-haul truck routes is the lifeblood of any air-cargo hub. To become a dominant east coast air cargo operation, Dulles requires easy access to Interstate 81, Interstate 66, Interstate 95, and U.S. 29. Given the horrendous traffic delays now encountered around Dulles, it is easier at present for shippers to route cargo from New York City’s JFK Airport to Atlanta via I-81.
Why are tractor-trailer rigs needed to get the job done? The answer is basic economics. If UPS, to pick an example, hauled 45,000 pounds of air fright from Dulles to Atlanta in local delivery trucks, it would have to pay seven drivers to drive seven delivery trucks a total of 3,850 miles. By comparison, one driver in a tractor-trailer could take the same load 550 miles to Atlanta for a fraction of the cost and time. That’s why UPS consolidates as much cargo into a single load on a single truck going to a single location, or a tightly clustered group of locations, as possible. That’s also why 20% of UPS’ more than 100,000 trucks are fully loaded long-haul tractor trailers.
UPS goes to great length to insure that all these big rigs are run with maximum efficiency and productivity. Accordingly, if UPS accepted Dulles’ invitation to move its primary East Coast air cargo hub from Philadelphia, the logistics giant would redeploy its network of secondary hubs. These distribution centers would collect and consolidate cargo from outlying regions and then load it all into 52-foot tractor-trailers bound for Dulles. At Dulles, UPS would sort up to 77,000 packages an hour driven in from these outlying regions, as it consolidated the cargo again into packages for flights to Europe, Africa or the Mideast. The tractor-trailers would be reloaded with newly arrived air cargo for delivery up to 400 miles away. In the game of logistics, unloading, reloading, and turnaround must be quick and efficient. At Dulles, UPS’s goal would be to get its rigs back on the road again, fully loaded and rolling down the highways, delivering more freight to new destinations.
In short, basic economics insures that a busy air cargo hub at Dulles would keep Northern Virginia highways clogged with tractor-trailers.