David Hasenauer is in a hurry. He has to get to Los Angeles International Airport to meet a flying horse.
Actually, Hasenauer is meeting five flying horses, all of them inbound to LAX from Auckland, New Zealand, aboard an Emery Worldwide Airlines DC-8 cargo plane.
Their owners have paid something in the neighborhood of $5,000 each to have them shipped to the United States by air, instead of saving money by putting them on a ship for a two-week transpacific voyage.
It’s Hasenauer’s job to pick them up at the airport.
So Hasenauer, president of an animal air-shipping company called Jet Pets Inc., hops in his pickup truck and heads for a dilapidated former Nike missile site in a remote corner of LAX.
The DC-8 lands and then taxis onto the apron, and with Hasenauer carefully eyeing the cargo, handlers start unloading--first some pallets piled high with bulk cargo and then the horses, which are in large open-topped wooden shipping boxes, three in one box, two in the other. They’re accompanied by a New Zealander groom, Bernie Hackett.
Hackett says the horses did just fine. Top shape. No problems. They didn’t even get airsick, although he admits it’s a little hard to tell if a horse is airsick, considering that horses can’t throw up.
“We handle about 700 or 800 horses a year,” Hasenauer said. “A lot of horses get sent to Japan or Australia for races or shows. They’re flying all the time. Some of them have more flying miles behind them than most people do.”
Meanwhile, thousands more horses pass through LAX on domestic flights every year. So do sheep, goats, fish, cattle, parrots, chickens--well, just about everything that walks, crawls or flies.
They are all air cargo.
And that’s just the living, breathing part of the LAX air cargo world. Although most people think of LAX as a place that moves people, it also moves an astonishing array and volume of freight--about 2.8 billion pounds of cargo every year--everything from horses to textiles and soup to nuts, a little more than half of it packed in the bellies of commercial airliners along with your luggage, the rest in cargo aircraft.
LAX is now the busiest air cargo center in the nation. Every day about 7 million pounds of air cargo goes through LAX on 1,000 arriving and departing cargo and cargo-and-passenger flights.
It’s sort of like a flying warehouse in the sky.
According to U.S. Department of Commerce figures on international imports and exports--which account for just under half of all LAX air cargo--the largest imported commodity coming through LAX was apparel, with 47,000 tons arriving in 1992, the last year for which figures are available.
The biggest export from LAX was 33,000 tons of vegetables, fruits and nuts. In that same year, 18,000 tons of computer equipment and parts worth about $2.4 billion were exported through LAX, and 24,000 tons of computer equipment worth about $3.3 billion were imported.
There also were 7,000 tons of taps, valves, bearings and gaskets imported and exported, along with 6,000 tons of live animals and meat, 550 tons of feathers, artificial flowers and wigs; 16,000 tons of fish and crustaceans; 1,400 tons of musical instruments; 1,100 tons of arms and munitions; 1,700 tons of beverages, spirits and vinegar; 2,600 tons of jewelry and coins; 208 tons of animal and vegetable fats and oils. The list goes on and on.
There were even 57 tons of a category the Commerce Department describes, somewhat curiously, as “umbrellas, walking sticks and whips.”
About 43% of LAX air cargo exports go to Asian countries, with Europe and Australia/Oceania following at 35% and 11%, respectively. About 70% of LAX imports come from Asia and about 17% from Europe.
Also about 175,000 tons of mail, domestic and international, moves through LAX every year.
“Anything that’s valuable and can fit in a plane, alive or dead, moving or not moving, comes through here,” said Rick Wells, assistant chief of airport planning for the Los Angeles Department of Airports.
Sometimes the air cargo is illicit. In May, U.S. Customs agents discovered a ton of Colombian cocaine hidden in a shipment of flexible rubber tubing inbound from Mexico aboard a chartered cargo plane. So far this year, customs agents have made four seizures of drug shipments hidden in air cargo.
All imported cargo passing through LAX is subject to U.S. Customs inspection. But with so much cargo moving through, officials can only inspect a portion of it.
“It’s a daunting task,” spokesman Michael Fleming said. “We have limited resources on what we can examine. The vast majority of cargo is legitimate, and we don’t want to impede legitimate cargo, which could cause economic impacts. So we work selectively.”
Air cargo is an important if little known--to the public at least--aspect of airport operations, Wells said. It doesn’t have the glamour of passenger operations, and thus it traditionally hasn’t gotten as much attention from airport officials as the passenger side of the flying business.
Still, as LAX air cargo tonnage has increased by about 50% in the last decade, LAX cargo facilities have expanded to meet the demand.
Gateway Freight Services Inc., a contract cargo handler for 22 airlines that operate in and out of LAX, recently expanded its facilities. Federal Express, Japan Airlines and Qantas also plan to expand cargo handling facilities at LAX. Currently about 1.6 million square feet of air cargo terminal space is available at LAX, about two-thirds of it used for international import-export.
About 5,000 people in Los Angeles are directly employed in air cargo-related jobs with airline and freight companies. That represents about 10% of the total number of people who work at LAX. Airport officials estimate the “economic impact” of LAX air freight in the Los Angeles region at about $11 billion per year, or about $9,000 for every ton of air cargo that passes through.
True, LAX’s 1.4 million tons of cargo annually pales in comparison with the 75 million tons of goods that move through the Port of Los Angeles by ship every year. But the value of LAX import-export goods--about $34 billion--is a little over half of the value of goods that move through the port.
In other words, air cargo may be relatively small in quantity. But pound for pound it’s some of the most valuable cargo in the world.
Generally, larger airlines with numerous LAX flights handle their own air cargo, but for smaller or foreign-based airlines with limited numbers of flights it’s more cost-effective to contract out their cargo handling operations to companies such as Gateway Freight Services.
“Almost anything that’s for sale, anything people want, anywhere in the world, comes through here,” said David Abe, chief operating officer of Gateway, which handles nearly 600 million pounds of air cargo annually, making it the largest contract air cargo handler at LAX.
Abe is standing in a 38,000-square-foot warehouse, one of five cargo handling centers Gateway operates at LAX. In the vast, high-ceiling building with row upon row of shelves, cargo waits to be put on a plane or picked up for delivery.
There are pallets of pearl onions and stacked boxes of rhubarb. There’s a box of live koi fish being shipped from Monterey Park to Seattle. There are boxes of lamb and venison from New Zealand and Australia, large slabs of tanned leather, a film canister bound for Hollywood from Portugal, boxes of men’s belts from Italy, sealed boxes of unknown goods from India bound for the Target Stores of America, “special handling” boxes marked flammable and corrosive.
“Every single day it’s something different,” said Mark Wood, Gateway terminal manager. “We’ve had cars, reptiles from Africa, birds. Once we had a bear that was going to the Los Angeles Zoo.”
Human bodies--dead human bodies--also constitute part of LAX air cargo. Exact figures aren’t available, but airport spokesmen and air shippers say that every year hundreds of human corpses pass through LAX, in coffins inside shipping boxes marked “human remains,” bound for burial in other states and countries. They are handled like any other piece of air cargo.
Sending goods by air freight isn’t cheap, compared to sea or truck or rail shipping. Prices vary widely, depending on the weight and bulk of the shipment, but generally air freight costs three to 10 times more than shipping by sea.
Some items, such as sea urchins bound from California to the sushi restaurants of Japan, or prepared fugu fish from Japan bound for the Japanese restaurants of California, have to get from Point A to Point B fast or they’ll spoil. At other times, market conditions, not perishability, make the difference.
“If you’re a store owner selling winter jackets and they’re going like hot cakes and you need more of them, they have to get here fast,” Wells said. “Sure, it costs more to send by air, but they won’t do you any good if they get here two months from now.”
“If you need a shipment by tomorrow, then cost isn’t really that much of a consideration, is it?” said Wayne Gatewood, office manager at Rainbow World Transport in Inglewood, one of about 300 freight forwarding companies in the Los Angeles area.
Of course, for some people cost really isn’t a consideration. A few months ago, for example, Gatewood’s company shipped a 48-foot horse trailer to Berlin by air freight at a cost of $17,000--at least three or four times what it would have cost to ship by sea. Gatewood figures that people who can afford to air ship horse trailers probably don’t worry too much about money in the first place.
Gatewood’s company also has shipped Harley-Davidson motorcycles to Italy, and Ferrari cars from Italy, along with 1,200 pounds of explosive detonators and some Italian space satellites.
Sometimes people simply run out of time and have no choice but to ship by air. That’s what happened with Gary Harper and his $30,000 Gatling machine gun.
Harper is a Ramona gas station owner who belongs to a military re-enactment group called the Gordon Highlanders, who wear the uniforms of Scottish soldiers of the 1880s. They were scheduled to participate in a ceremony in Scotland, and Harper wanted to take his 4,000-pound Model 1874, .45/70-caliber Gatling gun. The problem was that he only had a week, and cargo vessels couldn’t get there that fast.
Ordinarily, it would have cost Harper about $3,000 each way to air freight the Gatling gun, but only $300 to $400 by sea. But Northwest Airlines took a liking to his group and “helped us out” on the freight charges, Harper said.
“We had a time problem,” Harper said. “Besides, every time I’ve ever shipped something by sea there’s been a problem. The shipment gets damaged, or it gets wet; it’s always something.
“As far as I’m concerned, air cargo is the only way to go.”