A Day in the Life of Southwest’s Largest Cargo Operation

I don’t talk about cargo much on the blog, but it is most definitely an integral part of the business. Chances are, on every flight you take, there is some kind of cargo in the belly of that airplane. So when Southwest asked if I’d be interested in taking a look at the airline’s largest cargo operation, I thought it would be worthwhile.

Unloading a 737-800

I was surprised to learn that Southwest’s largest cargo station is actually in Los Angeles, even though LAX is only the airline’s tenth largest station in terms of number of departures. In LA, the airline pushes through more than 30 million pounds of cargo every year. That’s over 80,000 pounds a day, about the same weight as one empty 737-700. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not in the grand scheme of things. LAX in total handled more than 3.5 BILLION pounds of cargo in 2013. And if you’re curious what Southwest’s second largest market is… so am I. The airline wouldn’t tell me for some strange reason.

But Southwest does offer cargo service in all of its cities except for a handful of smaller, original AirTran stations (Dayton, Akron/Canton, Flint, Des Moines, Portland, and the international stations) along with Panama City in Florida. Apparently they had it in Panama City but the demand was so low that they pulled it completely. Southwest also offers cargo delivery into Canada and Mexico through interline agreements. That’s pretty unique for an airline that won’t interline its passengers at all.

Southwest Cargo at LAX

My visit began absolutely nowhere near a place you’ve likely been at LAX. Southwest uses a cargo facility on the southwest (snicker) corner of Century and Aviation. It’s at the eastern edge of the airport, near the threshold to the southern runways. If that sounds inconvenient, it is. Southwest’s flights go from Terminal 1, and that’s an incredible 3 mile one way trip from the cargo facility.

The facility is a modest-looking one, and you certainly wouldn’t take notice of it even if you were right next to it. The facility is set up very simply. There are loading docks along the east side to make it easy for trucks to drop off their cargo. During busy times, trucks can wait for a long time before being able to unload, but Southwest has expanded its operation to help alleviate the pain.

LAX Cargo Loading Dock

On the southern side of Southwest’s space, there are 4 intake areas. In the middle, there’s an office that looks like a ticket counter for people to do their business. On the north side, there are again 4 areas but these are meant for people picking up arriving cargo.

LAX Cargo Intake

Apparently about half of Southwest’s cargo business in LA comes from the shipper directly while the other half comes through third-party freight forwarders. Regardless of who sets it up, every shipper must have gone through TSA background checks in order to ship.

When the cargo is pulled off the truck, it goes through one of those four intake gates where paperwork is processed and the boxes are swabbed to check for dangerous substances. (It’s the same thing you get when they swab you or your bags at a TSA checkpoint for passengers.)

Once through, Southwest has to figure out where the put the stuff. It all depends on what’s inside. As you can imagine, Southwest ships all kinds of items. They kept mentioning tropical fish while I was there, and I saw some examples. Apparently there’s a big business shipping live fish around for people who, uh, deal in those things. There’s also seafood, money, and just plain old boring stuff like big boxes of print material.

If the cargo that comes through is perishable and it won’t go out for awhile, then it will end up in a cooler.

Cargo Coolers

I remember seeing the massive cooler rooms when I toured Delta’s facility in Atlanta. This isn’t anything like that scale. If things aren’t perishable they go straight into a cart.

Cargo Carts

If you see a covered cart outside the window of your airplane, that’s a cart full of cargo. The uncovered ones are used for bags. Why? Because cargo can spend a long time sitting in those carts so they need to be protected.

How long? Well it all depends. Southwest has three types of cargo shipments. The most urgent is NFG, or Next Flight Guaranteed. That’s the most expensive and absolutely has to go on the next flight out or it’s free. These are usually very important, something like organs for transplant. But anyone can pay for it if they so choose. Those packages won’t sit in the cart very long since they’ll be on their way quickly.

The next step is RUSH, and that’s guaranteed to get to the destination within 24 hours. The actual flight it goes on isn’t guaranteed, so Southwest can move things around depending upon where it has belly space available. (Cargo will almost never bump checked bags except in an extreme circumstance, so this flexibility helps.) This can sit on a cart for awhile.

The last one is general freight. This stuff is flown entirely on a space available basis. Southwest puts it on a flight that has room, but there are no guarantees on timing. Those things can stay on a cart for a longer time.

I suppose there is a fourth as well. Southwest does transport human remains and they have special covered carts for those as you see below.

Southwest Human Remains

The carts are lined up in rows and sorted by time. You never see multiple flights on a single cart, but they can string several of the carts together and tug them over. Since the terminal is 3 miles away, they want to take as much as they can on each trip.

Seeing all of these expected departure times got me wondering if the airline’s poor operational performance had really hurt the cargo team’s ability to reliably deliver for its customers. The answer was an emphatic “no,” presumably because of the wiggle room in timing for most cargo shipments.

To demonstrate the solid relationship Southwest has with its shippers, I was told about a failed GPS product that the airline offered. This device would show where the cargo was, what the temperature was, and more to give shipper peace of mind. But the shippers felt that Southwest was so reliable in general that nobody wanted to pay extra for that device. It flopped.

Cargo Off the Airplane

When the time comes, the cargo makes a long trek over to the terminal and each cart is dropped off next to its airplane. When an airplane comes in, cargo is unloaded into an empty cart, and then the full carts are unloaded into the airplane. When they’re done with the carts, they drag them up to a single pick up point toward the end of the terminal where a driver will pick them up and take them back to the cargo area.

If it sounds like a lot is going on at the terminal, it is. But there are only two people who work in cargo that are at the terminal itself. The cargo is actually loaded by the rampers, just like the bags are.

Emptying the Bins

If cargo is connecting between flights, Southwest runs it directly between the airplanes instead of sending it to a central connecting point. The only exception is if it’s an overnight connection (which does happen) or if it’s a perishable item on a long layover that needs to be refrigerated.

Cargo that comes into LA will be driven back to the cargo facility where it will be ready for pick up. When the recipient comes to get it, he just has to back up a truck to pick it up.

Southwest’s cargo operation isn’t the largest, nor is it the most technologically-advanced. (I was told that they are building a new cargo booking and tracking system because their current tech is really hindering them. Sounds similar to the passenger side of the airline.) To make up for it, Southwest focuses on making it a real customer service-oriented part of the business with 24/7 phone support and direct access for shippers to people at the airport.

This is not a part of the business that I think about a lot, but it’s sure interesting to get a peek inside every so often.

Thanks to Brad Rush, Cargo Customer Service Manager at LAX along with Amy McKinney, Manager of Cargo & Charters Marketing Vina Belardes, Cargo Area Sales Manager and Dan Landson, Senior Specialist in Culture & Communications.

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