What a difference a hundred years or so make. Portland’s deep-water river access to the Pacific Ocean has always made it a successful port. But at the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t necessarily a place you wanted to do business. Portland had a reputation both as a dirty and dangerous city; its saloons and bordellos packed with miners returning from California’s gold rush, while the docks were a hub for organised crime and racketeering.
But the passage of time, encompassing a hippy bloom and a high-tech boom, has seen Portland transformed into one of the most environmentally conscious, tech-savvy and successful export hubs on the US West Coast. It has excellent inter-modal transport links from air, road, rail and sea. Its four-terminal marine port – the biggest exporter of wheat from the US – Portland International Airport and two smaller airfields are managed by the Port of Portland, and it’s one of only five ports in the US to operate in this unified way.
For a port that looks out east, Asia, unsurprisingly, is a crucial market, and the state Oregon exports more than it imports. These were some of the underlying attractions for Cathay Pacific to start a freighter service to Portland in 2016. The service has grown from twice-weekly to three times weekly this year, plus additional services in summer to deal with soft fruit exports, particularly cherries.
Keith Leavitt, Chief Commercial Officer of the Port of Portland, asserts that cargo underpins the Port authority’s operations – even at the airport. ‘Cargo is very much part of our mission,’ he says. ‘Oregon is reliant on trade, and six of our top eight trading partners are in Asia. Our top five export partners in Asia – China, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam – represent more than 50 per cent of the international trade coming out of the state.’
The exports, especially those on the main deck of the Cathay Pacific freighter, can be divided into three main industry segments: high tech, apparel and agriculture – from land and sea. Keith says: ‘Intel has its largest constellation of R&D and manufacturing just outside Portland in Hillsboro,’ he says. ‘It’s exporting a lot of finished computer chips and also importing a lot of equipment as part of its research and manufacturing processes.
‘Then the footwear, apparel and outerwear industries are very big. Nike, Columbia Sportswear, KEEN, Adidas and Under Armour all have either global or US headquarters here. There’s a large concentration of design and marketing associated with that, but most of the manufacturing takes place in Asia, so there is a lot of back and forth required between Portland and their manufacturing bases.
‘Finally, we have the agriculture sector – and it’s our agricultural hinterland that makes us such a strong export performer. Seafood is part of that segment.’
Thoughts will, indeed, turn to seafood and Dungeness crab from the autumn, now that the cherry harvest has finished, along with the regular bookings from the city’s clothing and high tech sectors. Keith is also expecting serious growth in coming years from the consumer-led side of all these products – e-commerce.
‘Our team is fascinated with e-commerce,’ he says. ‘Not just what it means for air cargo, but marine and also real estate use and domestic movements. It feels as if we are in a transformational phase. It’s still evolving and I think that will add demand for air cargo.’
Fortunately, there is space to grow. There is capacity for 360,000 aircraft movements a year at PDX, and 2017 finished with just less than 230,000. There are two facilities for cargo, the PDX Cargo Center handles freight for the passenger airlines, but the real potential is based across the southern runway in the Air Trans Center, which is home to services for the US Postal Service and the major aggregators. It is also where the Cathay Pacific freighter is handled.
‘One of the great competitive advantages that we have here at PDX to grow cargo is that we have great infrastructure and we have the capacity to grow into it,’ says Keith. ‘The Air Trans Center has a critical mass of warehousing and taxiways, apron and runways that are ideally suited for freighter operations. We can grow within our footprint and we don’t have curfews or congestion.’
The current headwind, though, is political. While the escalating tit-for-tat tariffs between the US and the Chinese mainland have yet to hit air freight in a meaningful way, Portland’s sea port is exposed, even though, as Keith says, ‘it’s often hard to discern what is going on’.
‘The sea port is Ford’s gateway to Asia,’ he says. ‘It exports a lot of finished autos to mainland China, and those numbers have significantly fallen. There is concern that the trade situation will affect business, particularly the agricultural sector, while our strong manufacturing is heavy into metals.’
While reports are anecdotal at this stage, he predicts the next quarterly reports from those sectors are likely to show a slowdown.
Like the rest of the global airfreight industry, the hope is that this is a temporary blip. It is not stopping the Port of Portland from conducting a review of the Air Trans Center to ensure that it addresses the anticipated growth from e-commerce. Keith adds: ‘We also think growth of exports to Asia will continue to be a draw for freighters from PDX, so we’re looking to ensure that we have the right facilities in place.’ And as with the partnership with Cathay, that means ‘for the long term’.
What makes PDX special?
The thing that is distinctive about our mission is our focus on cargo. Most airports don’t have this, cargo tends to be the thing you do when the passenger business isn’t taking up all the space. For us, cargo has been a deliberate strategy and reflects our model of having marine ports and airports – and being mindful of a shipping community that needs both those products.
Has the Cathay flight stimulated growth?
Yes, we think so. We’re mindful of the incremental growth that we’ve seen. It launched in November 2016 with two flights a week, and flexed up to five in the summer [for cherries], and this year it was three flights a week, flexing up to six. That’s robust growth from a volume perspective. We’ve seen 52 per cent growth between June this year and last. That tells you that the market is using the service and the volume.
We hear from our shippers and forwarders that they value the more efficient truck trip to PDX as opposed to Seattle, San Francisco or Vancouver BC. That’s a significant efficiency gain on the front or back end of the trip.
Why Cathay Pacific?
Keith says: ‘We were very interested in having a long-term partner to work with and grow the service. We were mindful of the past 25 years, when we’ve had freighter services from PDX but we’ve not been able to sustain them. Cathay Pacific is more than meeting our expectations, and its people – from Pacific Northwest Cargo Manager Patrick Or, who is based here, to Senior VP Americas Phillipe Lacamp and the team in Hong Kong – are all a big part of that.
We’ve made several trips to Hong Kong, and we took Governor Kate Brown over there last year on a trade mission. It’s an excellent collaboration, and from that we’ve been able to access the ocean shipping side with Swire. We now have a monthly ship call into our Terminal Six facility that started this year, and that was a result of our relationship with Cathay Pacific.’