Wilmington Air Park becomes an Amazon Air ‘linchpin’

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In Amazon’s goal of delivering many packages in one or two days, the Clinton County air hub is the “linchpin,” said Bret Kresak, the hub’s general manager.

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At about 4 p.m. each day, a dozen cargo flights and up to 50 truck trailers begin arriving at Amazon Air’s sorting hub at a former Air Force base at Wilmington Air Park.

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By 1 a.m., those planes and trucks have departed. In the nine hours between, 1,100 employees work in a choreographed production to unload thousands of packages sent from 50 states, directing them to new destinations.

Last year, cargo traffic at Wilmington grew 289% compared to 2019, according to a February 2021 analysis by DePaul University. Amazon is the reason why.

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In Amazon’s goal of delivering many packages in one or two days, the Clinton County air hub is the “linchpin,” said Bret Kresak, the hub’s general manager.

The Dayton Daily News was recently invited to visit the hub in what Amazon said was its first opening to the media.

Kresak said the beauty of Wilmington is its organization. This is where the spokes of a massive cargo-sorting hub meet, with 1,100 employees working across 1.1 million square feet of space — 550,000 square feet on each of two levels.

By the end of each night packages have been sorted, placed into the trucks or planes for their next destinations, and shipped out.JIM NOELKER/STAFF
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By the end of each night packages have been sorted, placed into the trucks or planes for their next destinations, and shipped out.JIM NOELKER/STAFF

The hub is a multi-modal facility. It moves items from airplane to airplane (”air-to-air”), airplane to truck (”air-to-ground”) and truck to airplane (”ground-to-air”), Kresak said.

“Right now, we’re the only Amazon site that does that,” he said. “The other Amazon sites across the country do ground-to-air and air-ground. So we’re unique in the fact that we do air-to-air.”

Amazon’s hub does not accommodate ground-to-ground delivery, leaving that job to fulfillment centers, like the one in Monroe or the one being built in Union.

Of cargo coming in, 60% arrives on planes and 40% by truck. Going out, 80% departs by air and 20% by truck, with ground deliveries destined for homes and businesses within 300 miles of Wilmington.

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Wilmington is one of two Buckeye State Amazon Air facilities, the other being in Toledo. “This is our big operation,” said Jessica Pawl, an Amazon spokeswoman.

Amazon Air flight departures begin at 11 p.m., with the window between take-offs shrinking to a mere four minutes by 12:30 a.m.

“It’s a very high speed sortation operation,” Kresak said. “It’s very synchronized, and it’s very efficient.”

‘Reasons for optimism’

In 2020, 439 million pounds of cargo moved through Wilmington Air Park, a milestone that makes it the third largest cargo-focused airport in the nation, according to a Supply Chain Dive web site report last month, relying on an analysis of government transportation data by DePaul University.

Dan Evers, executive director of the Clinton County Port Authority, which owns the air park, confirmed the cargo number.

“We were pleased to see that, and we don’t dispute that analysis,” Evers said.

One of the authors of the DePaul report, Joseph Schwieterman, a professor in DePaul’s School of Public Service, recently visited Wilmington and came away impressed.

“There are plenty of reasons for optimism about Wilmington,” Schwieterman said in an interview.

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‘Back on the map’

Amazon’s Wilmington operations started in June 2019, following an 18-month pilot or test, dubbed “Project Aerosmith.” Amazon was pleased with the outcome, even though the company decided in 2017 to build its main, $1.5 billion hub — which is not yet operational — at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

“We were able to turn an opportunity into an operation together,” Evers said.

According to the DePaul report, the hubs at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International (known by its three-letter airport designation CVG) and Wilmington Air Park (ILN) “position Amazon to move assertively into third-party delivery at the time of its choosing.”

CVG and ILN position Amazon for a next-day shipping network that reaches 95% of the population of the contiguous United States, the analysis said.

Amazon ground crews position a 767 cargo plan for offload at the Wilmington Air Park. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
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Amazon ground crews position a 767 cargo plan for offload at the Wilmington Air Park. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

“Such a network would be valuable to both Amazon and third-party retailers selling on different platforms,” said the report, authored by Schwieterman, Jacob Walls, Borja González and Crystal Bell.

The air park has come far from 2008, when former owner DHL moved its international business to the CVG. The move resulted in the loss of some 8,000 jobs in Wilmington.

“This operation has put ILN back on the map. And as we like to say, there’s nothing as powerful as market recognition,” Evers said.

When it becomes operational later this year, the CVG Amazon hub will “dwarf” Wilmington in size, DePaul acknowledges.

But Schwieterman does not think Wilmington workers have reason to worry.

“Wilmington and Cincinnati can have complementary roles,” he said.

The reason for that confidence is simple: The air park is unique. The park serves general aviation and corporate traffic. It does not have scheduled passenger traffic.

“There are precious few cargo-only airports in the country that are flourishing, and Wilmington is one of them,” Schwieterman said.

Bret Kresak is the General Manager of the Amazon Wilmington Air Park facilities. JIM NOEKLER/STAFF
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Bret Kresak is the General Manager of the Amazon Wilmington Air Park facilities. JIM NOEKLER/STAFF

Amazon likes airports with little or no passenger traffic. “They like no congestion,” Schwieterman said.

For now at least, a rising tide lifts all boats: Wilmington doesn’t have to out-compete Cincinnati, he said.

Another reason for optimism: Amazon has invested in Wilmington’s Air Transport Services Group (ATSG), becoming a minority stakeholder in the aircraft leasing business. (Amazon also has a minority stake in ATSG rival Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings.)

Kevin Chambers, JobsOhio managing director of logistics, distribution and supply chain, is a former Air Force officer and former partner at Deloitte Consulting in Dayton.

While Chambers cautions that while there are no guarantees, he believes the ATSG investment “demonstrates their (Amazon’s) long-term commitment” to Wilmington.

“There is enough volume to go around,” Kresak said. “Most facilities can continue to find their place. We’ll continue to grow along with CVG.”

Problem-solvers

It is “mind-boggingly complex” to make millions of different products available all over the country, Schwieterman said.

Amazon’s Wilmington crew — they sometimes call themselves “Amazonians” — work hard to make it look easy.

Before Amazon’s Boeing 767s and 737s land (many of them leased from ATSG), employees conduct a “FOD walk,” checking the plane’s parking area for debris. (”FOD” stands for foreign object debris.)

Arriving planes are greeted on both sides of the fuselage by crews ready to unload. Diesel-powered deck loaders rise to accept 24 large containers, while at the plane’s lower belly, smaller packages are unloaded.

Using hand signals, employees direct drivers to pull their train of dollies forward. Once a dolly is loaded, the train pulls forward to accept the next container.

In Amazon’s goal of delivering many packages in one or two days, the Clinton County air hub is the “linchpin,” said Bret Kresak, the hub’s general manager. JIM NOEKLER/STAFF
Caption
In Amazon’s goal of delivering many packages in one or two days, the Clinton County air hub is the “linchpin,” said Bret Kresak, the hub’s general manager. JIM NOEKLER/STAFF

Kresak observes that “no one is rushing.” Unloading proceeds in all weather conditions and moves briskly.

“It’s really amazing how everyone can work together in one motion,” said recently promoted manager D.J. Henry. “They can unload a whole plane in 15 to 20 minutes. It’s pretty neat to watch it all.”

Inside the sorting hub, large packages are trained or conveyed separately from envelopes or small packages. The operation is monitored by a “nerve center” where a small group of employees follow overall flow on six to 12 monitors.

If packages are damaged or missing labels, they end up in a “problem-solving” area, where employees rely on a proprietary Amazon software system to determine destinations and repackage.

“In my opinion, this is the best area in the whole plant,” said employee Kim Smith, a former Airborne Maintenance & Engineering Services worker in Wilmington.

By the end of each night packages have been sorted, placed into the trucks or planes for their next destinations, and shipped out.

Since 2010, Amazon’s total Ohio investment has been some $5.9 billion, creating more than 41,000 jobs.

“We are just continuously overjoyed with the investment Amazon has made,” Chambers said.