By Adina Solomon
Ellington Airport in Houston has an unusual advantage, according to Mark Witte, vice president for design and construction at real estate firm J.A. Billipp Company.
“It does not have air cargo operations presently,” Witte, one of the firm’s principals, says. “That is what we see as so beneficial.”
J.A. Billipp is developing air cargo and aviation-related facilities on a 37-acre area adjacent to Ellington. Though the land is on private property, the company is working with the support of Houston Airport System.
A taxiway lies close to the future cargo facilities, and Ellington has planned up to 50 acres of ramp space in the area that borders J.A. Billipp’s property.
Each building, which will either be leased or purchased by companies, will be made on a build-to-suit basis.
“We can move quickly to meet somebody’s needs with a building,” Witte says. “Basically, this is raw land ready to be developed right now.”
But why build up freight traffic at Ellington when Houston already has George Bush Intercontinental Airport, which is busy with international cargo?
The answer lies in Ellington’s history. The airport was originally set up for military operations, which continue today. It does not have scheduled commercial passenger traffic.
That’s why Witte sees Ellington’s lack of cargo operations as a positive rather than a hindrance.
“If an air cargo plane wants to land or take off, literally you’re not waiting behind however many, a string of a dozen passenger jets to take off,” he says.
Because of its military history, Ellington has a 9,000-foot runway that can handle any freighter.
The airport is also fewer than 10 minutes away from Port of Houston’s Bayport Terminal seaport and five minutes from major highways. Ellington is in the south of Houston while Bush Intercontinental is in the north.
“It’s not that this airport would be competing with Bush,” Witte says. “This would be just more of an alternative that would allow companies to have an air cargo operation that is much closer to the Port of Houston, that is on the south side of Houston and that doesn’t have commuter airlines that are competing for taxiways and runway space.”
Ellington also has available foreign-trade zone status.
“If [international shippers] fly product in, warehouse it, put it on another plane, basically if it comes in and then is distributed back out and never leaves the airport, basically it complies with the duty free basis of the foreign trade zone,” Witte explains.
Though cargo operations remain stagnant at U.S. airports overall, Witte says he believes that Houston’s economy – it’s one of the fastest growing in the country – will entice companies into starting cargo operations at Ellington.
The oil and gas industry maintain a strong presence in the city, and fracking and oil drilling have called for more product to enter the Port of Houston.
“Houston’s economy will basically allow us to make that hurdle,” he says.
Because the facilities will be done on a build-to-suit basis, the construction will be done over time. J.A. Billipp can develop a building for a specific company within a year. Witte estimates that this could amount to US$60 to $100 million worth of new development.
That doesn’t include the ramp space that J.A. Billipp offers to add for companies.
“Bringing in air cargo business will bring business into Ellington Airport,” Witte says. “It will infuse an economic boom for this portion of area right around, and obviously if we have air cargo companies that are bringing product in, that would translate to that product being shipped out, benefiting trucking companies.”
The company is just starting to get word out on this project, but he says he is confident that J.A. Billipp can sell people on the benefits.
“With the runways and the property and the infrastructure that’s at Ellington,” Witte says, “what is lacking [is] any sort of air cargo.”