As Ports Struggle, Air Cargo Booms at Sea-Tac | KUOW News and Information

As Ports Struggle, Air Cargo Booms at Sea-Tac

Feb 13, 2015

A labor dispute with dock workers has led to slowdowns and backups at West Coast ports. One part of the Port of Seattle's cargo business is booming. KUOW's John Ryan reports.


Workers are busy off-loading pallets of textiles that just arrived from South Korea. But these guys aren't off-loading a cargo ship on the waterfront. They're unloading the belly of a wide-body Delta airliner.

The Port of Seattle runs Sea-Tac Airport. There, the cargo business is, well, taking off.

Tom Green is in charge of cargo operations at Sea-Tac.

Green: "This is one of the largest air freighters you're going see in the world. It's a Ukrainian-built aircraft."

The Antonov 124 is a bit of an odd bird. The Soviet-era plane has 24 wheels. It carries 70,000 gallons of jet fuel. Its nose and tail pop open to make for easier loading of giant cargo, like the four jet engines this plane is delivering to Boeing from Ohio.

A Ukrainian cargo plane shortly after arriving at Sea-Tac with its cargo of four jet engines on their way to Boeing.
Credit KUOW photo/John Ryan

Most of Sea-Tac's cargo business is domestic, and most of that is FedEx packages. But the biggest growth is coming from overseas.

Green: "The growth is certainly coming on the international side. In 2014, we saw our international air freight volume grow by more than 20 percent. So that's really the leader there."

Port of Seattle officials couldn't say how much of the boom in air cargo stems from trouble along the waterfront. They do say they expect a lot more air traffic in the future.

Sea-Tac plans to nearly double its passenger flights and triple its cargo flights over the next couple decades.
That would require major expansion at the airport. And barring technological breakthroughs, all that extra air traffic would also mean major increases in carbon emissions.

The Port of Seattle claims to be the "green gateway to trade." Next month, Sea-Tac Airport will start holding public meetings to discuss its growth plans and their environmental impacts.

In case you were wondering about the fuel economy of the big Soviet-era plane that landed at Sea-Tac: Fully loaded, it gets about 40 miles per thousand gallons.