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The Tightest Race in the Shipping Business : Transit: Air cargo companies, battling traffic to get to the airport with overnight parcels, lobby for permission to fly out of John Wayne in Orange County.


LONG BEACH — You might say Joe Bennett lives on deadline.

Every afternoon, the United Parcel Service driver has to beat the clock as he pilots a boxy chocolate-brown van from the company's hilltop processing center in Aliso Viejo to the Long Beach Airport. It is the last chance for packages from Orange County to make an overnight delivery jet.

Traffic jams resulting from accidents, rain or concerts at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre can make Bennett late. And every minute that the company's delayed Boeing 757 freighter holds up its national distribution operation in Louisville, Ky., it costs the firm $2,000.

And Bennett is not alone. Several "chase" drivers, hurrying to catch the plane with late parcels that did not make it on the UPS tractor-trailer, converge on Long Beach Airport every afternoon. They come here because the city's airport allows cargo flights, and John Wayne Airport in Orange County does not.

Adding up the time and money spent in these last-minute cross-county chases has made UPS intent on beginning regular cargo jet service out of John Wayne Airport. Bennett's 36-mile commute would be shaved in half. Businesses that depend on overnight shipping, like those with a sizable mail-order operation, would be able to add at least half an hour to their business day for outgoing packages. That could be enough to determine whether a sale goes to them or to a competitor.

But including a single cargo plane among John Wayne's 73-plane daily lineup is not as simple as it sounds. The Orange County Board of Supervisors would have to amend a 1985 agreement that effectively barred regularly scheduled, all-cargo flights. A passenger flight would most likely have to be bumped to make way for the freighter. And the airport staff worries that adding cargo-only flights could set a troublesome precedent, displacing passengers for packages and opening the door to more cargo operations by existing airlines.

In Long Beach, where four flights a day are dedicated to cargo, the UPS plane is welcome.

Long Beach is allowed 41 flights a day--that's 41 take-offs and 41 landings--but the economy has whittled the number of planes wanting to use the airport down to 17. With so few flights, and decreased noise pollution, the facility rarely hears complaints from the neighbors anymore. In busier days, the city and neighbors took the airport to court to limit the number of flights.

But even if they had a full flight schedule, airport personnel doubt that the neighbors would complain about UPS cargo.

"When we do hear complaints, it's usually about (Federal Express)," said Matthew Crosman, acting noise abatement officer. "They've got older planes, 727s, that are louder and they don't climb as quickly, so people hear them longer."

In Long Beach, UPS uses only 757 aircraft, a more recently designed, quiet plane that climbs as quickly as any passenger jet. Complaints about cargo planes almost always center on the three Fed Ex flights, which generally take to the air around dinner time, Crosman said.

While planning to keep its Long Beach business, UPS and rival carrier Federal Express each applied five years ago for permission to begin cargo flights out of Orange County. Traffic congestion gets worse every year, so the need for service at another airport is great, UPS maintains.

The latest information available shows that in 1991, only 2,500 tons of air freight moved through John Wayne, about 0.2% of the total volume in Southern California. Most of those were small shipments that were sent in the bellies of passenger airliners. In contrast, Los Angeles International Airport had 1.3 million tons, or 79.1% of the volume and tiny Long Beach Airport had more than 27,000 tons, or 1.7%, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

To help their case at John Wayne, UPS has decided to spend an estimated $100,000 to fulfill the requirement for an environmental impact study that will look at the implications of adding a single daily freight flight at John Wayne.

While such detailed reports are usually reserved for construction projects or sensitive environmental areas, UPS said it hopes that the report will allay fears about noise and shed light on several other issues. For instance, it will show whether a cargo flight would generate additional pollution by forcing scores of airline passengers who otherwise would have flown from Orange County to commute to flights at Long Beach or Los Angeles International airports.

As with all airport disputes, noise will be one of the chief issues. UPS has muffled the debate somewhat by offering to fly only twin-engine 757s, as they do in Long Beach, which would be quieter than 86% of all other takeoffs--both commercial and private--at John Wayne, the company maintains.

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