The first new cargo facility built in 20 years will bring welcome efficiencies for cargo airlines, freight forwarders, delivery companies and shippers at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is plagued by antiquated, cramped warehouses that haven’t kept up with growth in shipment volumes.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Wednesday announced the signing of a long-term lease agreement with Aeroterm for the development of a modern 348,000-square-foot cargo processing center on more than 26 acres. The estimated cost of the project is $145 million.

Aeroterm, a major developer of cargo real estate at airports, will begin demolishing two vacant, obsolete facilities at JFK in September, with project completion expected by the end of 2023. 

The warehouse will have parking positions for three large freighter aircraft, more than 50 dock doors for truck transfers, advanced technology systems for efficient loading, unloading and storing of cargo, as well as a dedicated temperature-controlled zone for handling pharmaceutical products. Officials say it will be able to handle significant cargo volumes, ease cooperation between airlines operating within carrier alliances and optimize resource utilization.

JFK is the fourth-largest U.S. gateway for international air cargo traffic, not including the FedEx and UPS package hubs in Memphis, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, respectively, according to pre-pandemic figures from Airports Council International. In 2020, 1.2 million tons of cargo were processed at JFK, the port authority said.

Delays have increased enormously during the pandemic because of the large number of freighter movements carrying medical supplies and other products to satisfy a red-hot economy, according to industry professionals.

“With the amount of flights coming in there are significant delays from all of the cargo handlers, so adding capacity will certainly help, that’s for sure,” said Evan Rosen, president of the Americas at EFL Global, a freight management company. 

Many cargo buildings on airport property date back to the middle of the last century, with a couple of larger facilities built in the late 1960s and Lufthansa Cargo occupying a new building in 2003. The older buildings are narrow and not conducive for high-volume staging, consolidation and deconsolidation of shipments, and security screening — activities that require more room to ensure cargo flow, according to logistics professionals in the New York area.

“In the best of times it has not been one of the most efficient airports, so hopefully new facilities, better designed, will help,” said Bob Imbriani, executive vice president, international, for freight forwarder Team Worldwide and a member of the JFK Air Cargo Association. 

But a new cargo facility won’t address the fact that JFK has only one primary access road for freight — the Van Wyck Expressway — that can have hourslong traffic jams during large stretches of the day, he said, adding that officials should at least consider adjusting the road patterns within the airport to help trucks circulate between facilities.

“This cargo modernization program is a critical step forward in the overall redevelopment of JFK Airport, at a time air cargo is vital to our regional economic vitality,” said Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole in a statement. “We look forward to working with Aeroterm to raise our cargo capabilities to state-of-the-art standards.”

The cargo industry at JFK supports 73,000 total jobs, $12.5 billion in sales and nearly $4.4 billion in wages for the regional economy, according to the port authority.

The airport is expected to see increased volumes of belly freight once a new passenger terminal is completed and airlines resume international flying at pre-pandemic levels.

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