Amazon is a leader in online shopping. It has warehouses across the country to sort and deliver its products. Recently, Amazon Air announced it will expand its delivery network into Rockford.
Chicago Rockford International Airport is already a major hub for UPS. The airport also has maintenance facilities capable of repairing the world's largest aircraft. But Amazon took particular interest due to the airport's cargo operations. Director Sarah Rhoads says it's part of the retailer's "Middle Mile" network for two-day deliveries.
"That package would go from a fulfillment center to one of our 21 air gateways that we have throughout the United States for transport to then another air gateway for downstream transit to a sort center where that package would be sorted for final delivery to your location," she explained.
Amazon has been operating at Rockford's airport in some capacity since September 2016. Airport executive director Mike Dunn says they operated under a different corporate name, and airport employees were bound by nondisclosure agreements.
"They had their contractors here for the last year or so operating about two flights a day utilizing our current existing cargo facility," he said.
Amazon announced in December that it would expand its cargo facility, indirectly making its operations public. Dunn says this is significant for the airport's profile.
"Amazon has now publicly declared that this airport is one of their major hubs," he said.
The company and its subcontractors have hired about 350 people for airport operations, and Dunn expects Amazon to create another 300 or so jobs over the next year. Rhoads says the workforce is mostly local and the next step is increasing their operating space.
"Some added ramp space for our flight operations as well as some additional facility space to process the packages," she said, "and to sort them will be part of the expansion."
To this end, and to improve capacity, Dunn says the airport is making significant upgrades to its tarmac.
"That expansion has been about 10 million dollars overall the last 12 months or so and we're currently adding onto, at their request, the existing cargo building which is 72,000 square feet," he said. "We're adding about 120,000 square feet onto it."
The investment is significant, at about $21 million when adding in the cargo building expansion. But it's far from the only investment at the airport. Dunn says more than $100 million has come in over the past three years from federal sources. Among these are the Federal Aviation Administration.
And though Amazon Air has been in operation for only a few years, Rhoads says setting up facilities like Rockford's is not new.
"We have a number of air gateways very similar to Rockford that are located in many of the Metropolitan areas throughout the United States," she said. "So we're located as close to as many of our customers as possible."
And this type of reach isn't unique to Amazon. Dunn says other companies operating at the airport, including UPS, chose to set up shop for similar reasons.
"I believe the cargo guys have figured out that they can land their airplanes here, unload them, then move their product to and from Chicago markets, Milwaukee markets, Madison markets, Central Illinois markets, as fast as they can get the stuff out of O'Hare," he said.
Dunn says the growth of e-commerce has been a major factor in expanding cargo operations at Chicago Rockford International Airport. He believes Amazon will be there for the long haul and that its operations will continue to expand the airport's transportation profile.
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara agrees and says the Amazon expansion will continue to highlight the growth of what he believes is an important economic asset.
"I think what this has done most of all is really shed a spotlight on the fantastic things that the airport has done and so many other companies that are out there are doing and have been doing for years," he said.