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Update: Port of Huntsville sees surge in international air cargo, improves runway

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — When you think of a port, images of water, piers, docks and ships usually come to mind. When someone mentions the Port of Huntsville,  however, those images aren’t present. And while this key component of Alabama’s transportation infrastructure is just as active and economically vital as a standard port, that’s where the similarity ends.

This port is centered primarily on air, not water.

Executive Director Rick Tucker said the Port of Huntsville has three entities: the Huntsville International Airport, the intermodal center and the Jetplex Industrial Park, and the cargo side of the port’s infrastructure has been bustling.

Huntsville International Airport is ranked 14th in the U.S. for international cargo – falling between Philadelphia International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in terms of tonnage shipped. This week, the airport said a $27.8 million project to improve its west runway  and its adjacent taxiways was complete, setting the stage for more growth.

“Everyone on the list has a professional sports team, which says they’re much bigger markets,” Tucker said. “We’re hanging with the Detroits and Bostons.”

The airport handles more than 200 million pounds of cargo a year, and cargo carrier Panalpina operates 10 Boeing 747 flights a week to Europe, Mexico, Hong Kong and Brazil. The intermodal center set a record for freight weight, handling 204,722,795 pounds of cargo in fiscal year 2012, an 11 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

“Most people are amazed to learn that our airport is the 14th largest international air cargo airport in the U.S. and this is due to our partnership with Panalpina,” Tucker said. “The new west runway and taxiway system gives Huntsville the infrastructure it needs to continue growth in global transportation and to strengthen the regional economy.”

The cargo handled at Huntsville International ranges from pharmaceuticals to high-tech electronics and temperature-sensitive goods.  The airport has a 10,000-foot runway and a 12,600-foot runway to accommodate large aircraft such as the Boeing 747-8, which is 18 feet longer and 13 feet wider in wingspan than current 747 models. The 12,600-foot runway is the second longest in the Southeast, 400 feet shorter than Miami International Airport’s international runway.

The improvements made to the west airfield meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements to operate Panalpina’s 747-8 freighters, which are classified as Group IV aircraft, according to Huntsville International.

“Huntsville International Airport is part of a small group of U.S. airports that have been FAA-certified to support these 747-8s,” said Dr. Carl Gessler Jr., chairman of the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority. “We share this distinction with cities like Miami, New York, L.A., and Chicago. Considering the size of our community as compared to the others on the list, this truly is an accomplishment for our region.”

As part of the improvement project, paved shoulders on the runways were expanded to 35 feet and to 40 feet on the taxiways, the turn radius for taxiways was redesigned, upgraded eco-friendly LED signage was installed on taxiways and runways, and a new airfield lighting control system was implemented.

Handling rail cargo

The 7,000-acre Port of Huntsville also handles rail cargo at the International Intermodal Center, and the facility is a key link in the Norfolk Southern rail system. The Huntsville rail facility has a pair of 45-ton overhead gantry cranes to load and unload flatbed rail cars. The containers move on a direct spur from the Norfolk Southern main line and are stored and stacked in the depot.

The Jetplex Industrial Park  is essentially an office/industrial complex covering 4,000 acres. The park is divided into six areas that meet diverse requirements, and its tenants include Navistar,  Boeing, Raytheon, LG Electronics and Siemens VDO Automotive. Barksdale Dental Lab, which manufactures crowns, implants, dentures and other dental products, recently announced a $2.1 million expansion project  at the park. Several other companies are looking at sites there, Tucker said.

“We are consistently having prospect activity,” he said. “We’re really positioned well to accommodate growth. I feel confident about the future.”

The airport recently underwent a five-year, multiphase $92 million capital improvement and expansion project, which included tripling the size of the baggage claim area to 40,738 square feet, adding a second crosswalk to the new parking deck and expanded curbside loading and unloading areas.

“When people think of the airport they think in the passenger perspective,” Tucker said. “The improvement in the terminal facilities has been good for the customers.”

And, Tucker said, it helps the community, too, especially to visitors and business travelers.

“It was important because of how it presents the community to visitors and business prospects,” he said. “This gives a good first impression of the city.”

Photo by: Worker at Alabama’s Hyundai plant.

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