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January 25, 2017 11:00 AM, EST
Amazon Boosts Cargo Shipments 166% at Pennsylvania Airport
Mark Makela/Reuters

Lehigh Valley International Airport got a whole lot busier in 2016.

While passenger traffic was a small part of the picture — up 2.2% over 2015 to 688,505 travelers — the dramatic increase came in the number of packages.

The Lehigh Valley saw air cargo shipments increase nearly 166% in 2016, with planes carrying 126 million pounds of cargo compared with 47.4 million pounds in 2015.

That's attributable mostly to online retailer Amazon.com, which has been using LVIA as a hub in its growing in-house air shipping operation, linked to its Lehigh Valley distribution and fulfillment centers.

Charles Everett Jr., executive director of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, said Amazon has been a difference-maker.

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"To make a true comparison for air cargo growth at Lehigh Valley International Airport, you must reference the 2014 Traffic Report which displays 30,065,277 pounds," Everett said in a prepared statement. "During that time period [Fiscal 2014], FedEx was the only cargo operation at LVIA. The first full year with Amazon joining air cargo operations is 2016. The majority of growth can be attributed to the increase of cargo flights with relation to their arrival."

FedEx Corp. ranks No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

LVIA expects to make millions of dollars this year from the arrangement, in which Amazon is changing the way packages are delivered. The potential for growth is so high that the airport plans to spend $100,000 to expand its ground handling area to accommodate more cargo planes.

It also is considering building a $20 million warehouse to accommodate Amazon's shipments.

"Increased cargo operations created jobs and provided an important revenue stream for the airport authority to regain financial sustainability," Everett said. "We are preparing for more growth in the future."

Amazon rolled out its air cargo program in 2015 as a secret pilot project using Wilmington, Ohio-based Air Transport International planes to shuttle packages around the country, with LVIA as one of five hubs.

The company's goal was to cut delivery time and take control of a supply chain that in the past left some Amazon customers disappointed when third-party delivery companies didn't get packages to them on time.

While the 2016 increase in passenger traffic was more modest, it hit its highest level since 2013.

"We are extremely grateful to every passenger and the Lehigh Valley community for choosing LVIA when scheduling their vacations, business trips and travel needs," Everett said. "The increase indicates that our mission of delivering a memorable customer experience is working, and those standards must be maintained."

The airport still has a way to go to set a record for travelers. Lehigh Valley's passenger traffic peaked in 2004 at 1 million.