Oil equipment helps Houston air cargo soar

Forklifts and 18-wheelers moved wooden boxes and oil field equipment at Bush Intercontinental Airport‘s cargo center on a recent afternoon, dodging other traffic as parked freighter jets waited nearby.

The 120-acre IAH Cargo Center is about to become even busier with cargo destined for Africa and the Middle East – a cargo boom driven in part by high oil prices.

By the time 2011 ends, the year will have brought seven new international cargo flights to Houston’s big airport, including three carriers calling on Houston for the first time.

“It’s kind of snowballed,” said Genaro Peña, the Houston Airport System‘s director of air service development.

On Monday, Cargolux will launch new weekly service linking Houston with Lagos, Nigeria, and Accra, Ghana, the airport’s first nonstop scheduled freighter service to Africa.

And in the first week of November, Qatar Cargo will start a twice-a-week service from Houston to Luxembourg and on to Qatar’s capital city of Doha.

Overall, air cargo shipments through Houston increased 6.3 percent during the first eight months of the year compared with last year.

International cargo is up 11.4 percent, and shipments between Houston and the Middle East are up 48.8 percent.

“Houston is becoming a more important hub, a more important nexus for airlines that are moving products throughout the world,” Peña said.

Airport spokeswoman Marlene McClinton said Bush Intercontinental averages 73 to 85 freight flights a week, depending upon the number of charter operations.

In March 2009, Qatar Airways started daily nonstop passenger flights between Doha and Houston with a Boeing 777-200 aircraft that also can carry up to 19 metric tons of cargo.

Qatar Cargo will fly a 777-200F, which can carry up to 102 metric tons of cargo.

Saudi Airlines, China Airlines and Cathay Pacific Cargo added flights out of Houston this year.

And Aerologic, a joint venture between Deutsche Lufthansa and DHL Express, started operating a Boeing 777F on April 3.

It was so successful that Lufthansa Cargo started operating its own Boeing MD-11F on June 16.

Most of these airlines are exporting oil equipment, which often is needed on short notice, making a profitable business for air cargo handlers.

“If an important part doesn’t make it on time to its final destination, this could result in a loss of several million dollars,” said Rohan Lobo, the local representative for Lufthansa.

Despite the surge of freighters exporting oil field equipment, computers and machinery and importing industrial equipment, the cargo center still has plenty of space for more business, officials said. It has parking space for 20 wide-body freighter aircraft and is only half full at peak times.

Airport officials hope recently signed U.S. trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea will mean even more cargo trade for Houston.

jenalia.moreno@chron.com