When you think of passenger air travel in northern Illinois, O'Hare often comes to mind. But Rockford's facility, officially known as Chicago Rockford International Airport, is making a greater name for itself, particularly in the realm of cargo.
In 1994, officials with United Parcel Service, better known as UPS, made a deal with airport authorities to set up a sorting hub. Since then, it's become the company's second largest air operation in the world.
Earlier this month, airport officials presented the president of UPS Airlines with the Rockford Award. It recognizes businesses that contributed to economic development in the area. UPS Rockford Transportation Director Mike Nepaul says the company made several expansions over the years--which increased the number of packages it can sort.
"We're putting a new small sort mezzanine in right now, so that will expand our flow-per hour within the building from 89,000 per hour to over 120,000 an hour," he said. "So that's a big expansion for us. Previously, our prior expansions were putting a cargo facility expansion in 2006, which was a 70,000 square foot building."
The increased volume also means more seasonal and permanent workers.
"Just within the last year, we jumped up 1,100 people, so almost doubled our workforce, and then we're looking for additional people for our peak rush," Nepaul said.
Zack Oakley is Deputy Director of Operations and Planning at Chicago Rockford International Airport. He says a key factor in the expansion is the internet.
"Anything related to air cargo and the shipment of those e-commerce goods is just going to keep going," he explained. "It's becoming more and more prominent for people to shop online and they want those things quickly, and the fastest way to get those things there is usually on aircraft."
UPS may have a large presence at the airport, but it isn't the only player. Last year, Wood Dale-based AAR Corporation worked with the city and airport to build a 200,000 square-foot maintenance hangar that can service the world's largest aircraft. Greg Dellinger, AAR's Director of Talent Acquisition Strategy, says hiring is on the upswing.
"Right now, the current workforce is between 175 and 225 technicians," he said.
Rock Valley College built an aircraft maintenance school next to the hangar, and Dellinger says they've been a valuable partner.
"The school is full. There is a waiting list," he said. "Men and women who work with hand tools to make repairs using knowledge that is brought up and surfaced at Rock Valley College. This will never go away. So these are good jobs with a bright future."
He says AAR already hired 40 certificated aircraft mechanics upon graduation.
"We've had part-time workers. We continue to do tours to engage the next generation of student that will be at Rock Valley College. It is one of the 'secret sauce items' for the AAR hangar," he said.
Cargo and maintenance make up the bulk of the airport's operations, but it also has a passenger component. Last year, the Rockford Award went to Norwegian Airlines, for expanding its operations to the area. Oakley says the airport is optimistic, but some partners are worried about a pilot shortage.
"We have heard it from some of the smaller carriers that have been out there that it's just difficult for them to continue to grow. But the airlines we're talking to don't anticipate that to be an issue for us, but it's out there, and it could become an issue," he said.
Nonetheless, airport authorities continue to work with private companies and federal lawmakers to secure additional funds. This includes Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin announcing last June $3.2 million in funds to expand the airport's terminal and cargo apron.
Oakley is pleased with the growth spurred by E-commerce, and hopes Chicago Rockford International Airport can continue on this positive trend.
"We can't see anything but growth for the future," he said. "That's why we're trying to stay in front of it as much as possible, working with our Congressional support to try to make sure that all our projects happening at the airport line up with that growth from our users."