Eastern Iowa Airport cargo operations come alive after dark

Iowa airport is hub for FedEx, UPS, others

Ramp supervisor Ryan Mattheis watches as a plane is prepped to be loaded with packages at the Eastern Iowa Airport. Carg
Ramp supervisor Ryan Mattheis watches as a plane is prepped to be loaded with packages at the Eastern Iowa Airport. Cargo operations carry on at night after the passenger flights have ended, and early in the morning before flights start up again. (Kyle Grillot / The Gazette)

Just because it's night and the passengers have all flown out, it doesn't mean things are quiet at the Eastern Iowa Airport. That's when air cargo and freight operations shift into high gear.

Airborne Express-DHL, FedEx Express, UPS and the United States Postal Service Express Mail Network all have operations at the regional airport, which handles more than 40,000 tons of air freight and cargo annually. That can be legal documents, medical supplies, a new dress, computer hardware and software, or anything else that can be transported by air.

Two Boeing 727 cargo jets are loaded each evening by FedEx Express employees with packages arriving by truck from Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Waterloo and other Eastern Iowa communities.

Each aircraft holds 12 large shipping containers in the upper bay and the equivalent of two additional containers of loose packages in the "belly."

"In the evening, we transport it here with our ground network, consolidate it, interface with our air network and transport it to our national hubs," explained John Thielen, FedEx air-side manager. "Our facility is a distribution center in the morning where we distribute packages through the ground network to our markets."

The 86,000-square-foot FedEx Express facility, which opened for business in February 1998, employs about 100 people. Thielen, who has been with FedEx Express for 24 years, said Cedar Rapids is strategically located to serve a number of Eastern Iowa and western Illinois communities.

"Cedar Rapids is about an hour and a half from Waterloo, an hour and 15 minutes from Mount Pleasant, an hour and a half from Dubuque and an hour and a half from Moline," Thielen said.

"We have four-lane highways to Dubuque and Mount Pleasant, and interstate highways to Moline and Waterloo. We have close proximity to those markets and good ground transportation."

FedEx Express, which previously operated an office and distribution center at 12th Street and 33rd Avenue SW, consolidated facilities at the airport in 1998. Thielen said consolidating the FedEx Express station eliminated trucking packages to the airport.

Many of the same reasons that FedEx Express established a station at the Eastern Iowa Airport hold true for the presence of UPS, which has operated an air cargo "gateway" at the airport since 1987.

UPS has named Cedar Rapids a "central input point" for the company's Next Day Letter and Pak overnight freight service in the continental United States. The Cedar Rapids area generates more next-day business for UPS than Des Moines.

Each evening, UPS employees scan incoming packages from trucks into a central computer system and load them by destination into large cargo containers similar to those used by FedEx. The trucks haul packages from markets throughout Iowa as far north as Mason City, and a leased small airplane is used to ferry packages from northwest Iowa to Cedar Rapids.

"We fly one express flight in and out per day," said Michael Mangeot, public relations manager at UPS Air Group. "Typically it's an Airbus A300, which is widebody freighter with a payload of 120,000 pounds.

"There are times, depending on broader network needs, when we fly a Boeing 757 into Cedar Rapids."

A Boeing 767 cargo jet holds 15 containers in the upper bay and as many as two containers of loose packages in the aircraft's belly. An Airbus A300 holds almost twice as many shipping containers as well as loose packages in the lower hold of the aircraft.

The 6,400-square-foot UPS gateway at the Eastern Iowa Airport employs 52 people. It handles basic package sorting functions and houses administrative and aircraft maintenance offices.

The Cedar Rapids Airport Commission recently signed a new five-year lease with the Postal Service for 13,176 square feet of interior space and 18,381 square feet of exterior parking area that it uses for Express Mail Network operation.

Figures for the amount of express mail sorted at the airport facility were not available from the Postal Service.

Airborne Express-DHL did not respond to interview requests. Statistics provided each month to the Cedar Rapids Airport Commission showed Airborne Express-DHL has handled about 1.1 million tons of outbound cargo through Aug. 31, up 16.1 percent from 967,000 tons through the same date last year.

Airport Director Tim Bradshaw said the air cargo operations are a critical component of the airport's overall operations and revenue stream.

"We get Federal Aviation Administration entitlement funds based on the amount of tonnage that we move through here," Bradshaw said. "Those funds are just as important as the entitlement funds we receive based on the number of our enplaned passengers."

Bradshaw said the air cargo and freight operations are part of an overall regional transportation system that includes rail, over-the-road trucking and a foreign trade zone. The FTZ enables businesses to take advantage of the elimination or delay of duty payments, savings from zone-to-zone transfers, and cashflow savings on customs duties while products destined for the U.S. market are in production.

"We really have a unique arrangement with all the modes of transportation that are available to businesses," Bradshaw said. "We have been talking with economic development groups to make them aware that we have a hub of commerce at the airport.

"We have available land where we could have more companies with operations like Nordstrom Direct with product warehousing, distribution and fulfillment facilities. We're in the process of seeking federal approval to expand our foreign trade zone to include 28 Eastern Iowa counties.

"One of those counties is Lee County, where Fort Madison would allow us to also offer barge transportation on the Mississippi River."

Dennis Jordan, vice president of economic development with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, said his organization and the Iowa City Area Development Group are pursuing businesses that can take advantage of the FTZ, warehousing and transportation assets available in the Corridor.

"That is a huge target market for us," Jordan said. "We are looking for those opportunities by directly contacting companies we think would have that need as well as when we meet with site location consultants.

"The Eastern Iowa Airport is a unique asset, and if the Cedar Rapids Airport Commission decides to make it available, there is quite a bit of land that can be used for just that purpose."

Bradshaw said the FAA is encouraging airports to develop revenue-generating activities, such as leases for warehousing and distribution facilities on land that will not be needed for decades in the future. The Eastern Iowa Airport crop-shares land with farmers, which generates annual revenue.

Although a city-owned facility, the Eastern Iowa Airport does not receive any city or county property tax revenue.UPS has named Cedar Rapids a "central input point" for the company's Next Day Letter and Pak overnight freight service in the continental United States. The Cedar Rapids area generates more next-day business for UPS than Des Moines.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.