Collaboration urged to ease O’Hare cargo delays

Collaboration urged to ease O’Hare cargo delays

The forwarding, brokerage, trucking, and ground-handling communities were advised to find common ground to ease congestion. Photo credit:

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport moves $200 billion in air shipments through the Windy City, making it the No. 1 cargo airport in the Americas ranked by total freight value, according to the US Census Bureau. O’Hare (ORD) is also the nation’s second-busiest airport measured by aircraft movements, the Airports Council International says, with new flights from 17 global destinations added in the last 12 months.

But O’Hare holds another distinction, the Airforwarders Association (AfA) said, and it’s not something to crow about. ORD tops New York’s JFK as even more congested, with trucks trying to get their loads in and out of the airport thwarted by vehicular traffic, handling, and operational delays. Brandon Fried, AfA executive director, is on a nationwide campaign to bust up air freight delays at major airports.

AfA recently sponsored a town hall on the congestion issues creating delays at O’Hare.

In an interview with, Dan Gadow, Chicago terminal manager for AIT Worldwide Logistics, commended efforts of Adam Rod, Chicago Department of Aviation’s assistant commissioner of planning and cargo affairs for the last 12 years. Gadow said Rod worked with Aeroterm, an Annapolis, Maryland, airport properties developer to create the on-airfield $220 million, 675,000-square-foot Northeast Cargo Facility. The complex includes a 125-door 540,000-square-foot cargo warehouse, a 56-door, 240,000-square-foot cargo building, and adjacent parking for 11 widebody freighters. It opened in two phases in the last couple years.

Moreover, the Chicago Department of Aviation pumped $60 million of its own funds into the Northeast Cargo Facility, according to an O’Hare spokesperson. A third phase of the project will expand the facility to 905,000 square feet and add two more freighter parking spots.

“While it doesn’t solve the airport congestion problem,” Gadow said, “it does help, and I applaud their efforts.”

Transportation modes to be reviewed

O’Hare’s leadership is “looking further at congestion solutions to increase access for trucks moving in and out of the airport and to improve nearby expressway and roadway connections.” All regional transportation modes will be studied to see how traffic can be thinned out, an ORD spokesperson said, adding that O’Hare officials will discuss “better tracking software and new [truck] queuing lines” with cargo associations and warehouse tenants (airlines and ground handlers).

No action plans or timetables were provided, however.

Meanwhile, with his airline and ground-handling experience, Gadow cautions forwarders about complaining and blaming other stakeholders in the airport’s cargo community.

“The fact is [Customs] brokers and forwarders expect premium air service for shipments that fly at general cargo, non-express rates. General cargo is ‘coach.’ Premium freight, which gets priority boarding, later drop off, and earlier recovery, is ‘first class.’” He sees it as air freight 101.

Gadow contends that customer expectations on fast recovery is where the congestion problem begins. “But general cargo goes on the back burner where people who actually pay first class for live cargo, pharmaceuticals, and even human remains get the immediate attention.

“Then you have the issue of everyone showing up at the same time between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. when freeway and roadway traffic is heavy,” Gadow said.

He suggests forwarders think about changing their cargo recovery programs to help ease congestion. “Big forwarders are open 24/7. Smaller forwarders don’t have a third shift. Handling companies have this manpower situation which averages 65 to 80 percent turnover annually.” O’Hare is a 24-hour airport for flight operations.

Only one free storage day

Adding to the overall pain, Gadow points out that ground handlers would previously give forwarders and consignees two free storage days before recovery. But handlers, looking for more revenue, he said, have cut that to one free day, and storage fees start piling up quickly, adding more trucks to O’Hare on busy Fridays when most import shipments arrive.

Ground handlers are looking for ways to beef up terminal fees to offset their own shrinking revenue and higher costs, Gadow explained. Airlines are reducing the price they pay per kilo for ground handlers to act as their cargo terminal operators and move the freight.

“Forwarders are always talking that they would pay for better service, but airlines are continually challenging the bottom line of the ground handlers who are reluctant to walk away from fixed contracts with the airlines,” Gadow said. “All parties have a role in these delays and congestion.”   

The president of the 100-plus person International Air Cargo Association of Chicago, Scott Case, who is also a licensed customs broker and former freight forwarder, agrees that Rod is a “great conduit of information and access” to the airport decision makers. ”He’s good at opening doors, putting people together, but he can’t influence them or tell a ground handler what to do. The Department of Aviation cannot mandate employment and levels or hours of operation.”

Case said simply getting around O’Hare is tough and a time-waster for truckers. ”There is no airport service road to connect the northeast and southeast warehouse areas. And the southeast cargo buildings that opened 20 or 30 years to handle four airlines are now handling 10 to 12 airlines.

“Plus, on virtually every highway and road surrounding O’Hare, there has been simultaneous construction, and that’s created a perfect storm of delays for large and slow cargo vehicles trying to make their cutoff times.”

Case also agrees the forwarding, brokerage, trucking, and ground-handling community at O’Hare must find common ground — “own some responsibility to work together, change their behaviors and mindsets, and adopt online solutions” to the congestion quagmire.

One Chicago forwarder wonders if O’Hare’s congestion problem can ever be eliminated. “Depending on the airline and the ground handler, we budget for at least a five-hour delay, and, typically, it is seven hours on drop-offs of international cargo, and recoveries can take longer,” said Anthony Ferro, vice president of ALG Worldwide. “We cannot anticipate what is happening on each run so when there are [ground-handling] terminal charges, we’re eating them.”

Contact Chris Barnett at