July 11, 2023

Rickenbacker Airport adds refrigeration for Ohio pharma industry


Cargo-focused Rickenbacker International Airport is diversifying its business with the opening of the first cold storage facility in Ohio dedicated to pharmaceuticals shipped by air transport.

While most airports typically act as landlords for companies granted development rights, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority opted to invest, build and manage the pharma handling center itself while outsourcing operations through an innovative revenue-sharing program.

The 9,600-square-foot temperature-controlled warehouse, which resides within an existing air cargo terminal, cost about $2 million, including a pallet-sized X-ray screening machine, Bryan Schreiber, manager of air cargo business development, told FreightWaves. A former office and warehouse space was retrofitted to create the two-zone refrigerated space (2-8 degrees and 15-25 degrees Celsius) for vaccines, therapeutics and other life-science products for which there is increased demand. The area is completely self-contained, with no access to other tenants.

JobsOhio, the state’s economic development agency, contributed a $600,000 grant for the project, which was originally expected to open two years ago.

Rickenbacker Airport (LCK) handles some drugs shipped in active refrigerated containers. The new storage room will allow the airport to expand that line of business and open up new opportunities for airlines and freight forwarders serving the pharma sector.

“We had a lot of requests from our airline and forwarding partners for proper pharma handling capabilities but no takers in the private sector to invest in one. If our market was to continue to grow, we knew we needed to add this capability,” Schreiber said.

The investment in health care cold storage is part of the airport authority’s strategy to build out airfreight handling capabilities. The airport, for example, recently built a USDA-certified animal export inspection facility. 

Rickenbacker is a former Army air base with 12,000-foot runways surrounded by distribution centers for retailers such as Eddie Bauer, Lululemon and Abercrombie & Fitch.

The airport authority decided a revenue-sharing agreement was the best option for a return on its investment. Alliance Ground International, a rapidly growing airport services company based in Miami that already serves the airport, will operate the pharma center.

The new refrigerated warehouse at Rickenbacker International Airport is ready to receive pharmaceutical and life sciences shipments. (Photo: Columbus Regional Airport Authority)

Schreiber is marketing the facility, with a focus on scheduled cargo airlines that can provide connectivity from Germany and other countries in the European Union. Several top health care companies have visited the site.

“We understand these things take time, though, and we are confident that this new capability will be a good long-term play for our forwarding and airline partners building business through Rickenbacker,” he said.

The number of biomedical distribution, manufacturing and R&D facilities in central Ohio has grown substantially in recent years. The Columbus region imported $2.2 billion worth of pharmaceuticals from a single company in Germany last year and companies exported $614 million worth of non-temperature-controlled medical devices, instruments and medicines to the EU by air from LCK, Schreiber said. Life sciences organizations in Ohio attracted $3.5 billion in 2021, according to the Ohio Life Sciences Association.

Rickenbacker airport is not alone feeling the effects of a freight recession that has seen global air cargo demand fall more than 10% in the past 16 months. LCK volumes tumbled 33% last year from a record 338.7 million pounds in 2021 as retailers, which make up a large chunk of the airport’s end users, ordered fewer imports because of bloated inventories. LCK’s cargo volumes are down 48% year-to-date through May, according to airport figures. Vietnam is the airport’s largest trading partner.

“The construction of the pharma center will strengthen our market, enabling our forwarding and airline partners to benefit from a healthier and more downturn-resistant mix of air freight,” said Schreiber.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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