For the second time in a little more than a year, FedEx has boosted the size of its aircraft at Chattanooga Airport as soaring air cargo shipments in 2012 could near the all-time high.
The Memphis-based freight handler on Monday started flying a Boeing 757 in and out of Lovell Field six days weekly, according to the airport.
That's a bigger plane than the Boeing 727 that FedEx started flying into Chattanooga around August 2011. At that time, FedEx went to the 727 to replace two smaller planes.
FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said it doesn't disclose the volume of goods it handles at airports it services. But in addition to meeting freight demands, the company is going to 757s because it's a more efficient aircraft, he said.
"We're modernizing our fleet," McCluskey said.
Airport spokeswoman Christina Siebold said a 757 carries about 200,000 pounds of freight, or 40,000 more than a 727.
According to the Chattanooga Airport, air cargo rose through September to 11.6 million pounds, up 247 percent for the year over the same period in 2011.
Airport officials are projecting year-end figures to reach about 15 million pounds. The record was about 16 million pounds in 2008, Siebold said.
She said the all-time high took place when carrier DHL also was operating at the airport. But, DHL ceased its U.S. operations in late 2008, Siebold said.
The recent higher air cargo levels are because of growth from Chattanooga-area businesses, she said.
Airport officials have cited the addition of Amazon distribution centers in Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn. Also, Volkswagen and its auto suppliers have been mentioned as helping bolster cargo numbers.
To meet demand, the airport has started a $2.3 million expansion to a cargo ramp on the south end of its main runway near FedEx's location. The federal government is paying for 90 percent of the cost while the airport picks up the rest, according to the airport.
"We want to keep the aircraft clear of the runway," said John Naylor, the airport's vice president of planning and development.
He said the work is the first of five phases of improvements costing $20 million if needed.
"If we get the demand, we'll build it," Naylor said.
FedEx is leasing about 14,000 square feet of hangar space and around 110,000 square feet of exclusive ramp space, according to the airport. It employs about 30 to 35 people at the airport.
The airport earns revenues from leasing space to the air cargo carrier as well as from increased landing fees.
In addition to FedEx, commercial airlines ship cargo to and from Chattanooga on a limited basis and almost exclusively with "known shippers," according to the airport.
Also, other companies fly into Chattanooga on an "ad hoc" basis, Siebold said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.