Kentucky’s Aviation Advantage

When it comes to flying people and products, few if any states have the reach that Kentucky does.

Legislators got a better view of that work earlier this month, when officials representing Louisville’s, Lexington’s and Northern Kentucky’s airports updated the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee about what is taking place at their sprawling facilities.

 At Louisville’s Muhammad Ali International Airport, UPS now has the largest automated package-sorting facility in the world, with 155 miles of conveyor belts capable of handling more than two million packages a day.  Only four airports around the globe ship more.

At the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, meanwhile, Amazon debuted its $1.5 billion hub project in August, and its neighbor, DHL Express, announced this summer that it was adding 1,100 jobs at its own hub, which will be a 25 percent increase in its workforce.  Five years ago, DHL wrapped up more than $100 million in upgrades.

Those airports and Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport – which celebrated 75 years of commercial flights on Wednesday – are investing heavily in their own operations, with the three spending more than a half-billion dollars on various renovations during the next several years.

In pre-pandemic times, the three airports served nearly 15 million passengers annually, supported 134,000 jobs and boasted an economic impact exceeding $18.2 billion a year.

As it has with airports around the world, COVID-19 continues to have an outsized impact on the number of people flying.  In October 2019, the three airports had 680,000 people flowing through their terminals, but that dropped to fewer than 29,000 in April 2020, their worst month by far.  This past July, however, was their busiest month since that low-water mark, with numbers approaching 600,000.

While our cargo capacity gets most of the headlines when it comes to aerospace, Kentucky has also become a major player in manufacturing the parts that help get the planes in the air.

We have nearly 80 companies dedicated to this industry, and they employ almost 20,000 people.  In 2019, they shipped more than $14 billion worth of parts to countries around the world, while was nearly half of our entire export market.

At the collegiate level, two of Kentucky’s postsecondary schools have a prominent profile in the field.  Morehead State University is one of just a handful of colleges in the country to offer a major in space system engineering – its students have flown seven small satellite missions, with plans for more – and Eastern Kentucky University has the commonwealth’s only four-year program training tomorrow’s pilots and airport managers.  It’s expecting to have 400 students enrolled by next fall.

Beyond this work, Kentucky can claim several pioneers who had a profound impact on aviation and space exploration.  Lee Atwood, a Boone County native, helped engineer many of the aircraft that proved pivotal during WWII and oversaw the Apollo program that put the first humans on the moon.

Solomon Lee Van Meter Jr., who was born in Fayette County, developed the backpack parachute in 1916; and astronaut Story Musgrave, who calls Lexington his hometown, is the only person to fly on all five space shuttles and was at one time the oldest person ever in orbit.  That title now belongs to 90-year-old William Shatner, the actor who rocketed into space this past week and who once had a home in Central Kentucky.

As much as we have accomplished when it comes to aerospace, there’s reason to believe even better days are ahead, since companies relying heavily on e-commerce are taking advantage of what our logistics systems have to offer.  In that sense, the sky truly is the limit for what our future holds.

If you have thoughts or questions about this or other issues affecting Kentucky, please let me know.  You can reach me by email at Nima.Kulkarni@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line for all state legislators is 1-800-372-7181.

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