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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : The High-Altitude Highway : About 2.8 billion pounds of air cargo moves through LAX each year, from apparel to equipment to animals.

July 28, 1994|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Hasenauer is in a hurry. He has to get to Los Angeles International Airport to meet a flying horse.

Actually Hasenauer is meeting five flying horses, all of them inbound to LAX from Auckland, New Zealand, aboard an Emery Worldwide Airlines DC-8 cargo plane. Their owners have paid something in the neighborhood of $5,000 each to have them shipped to the United States by air, instead of saving money by putting them on a ship for a two-week transpacific voyage.

It's Hasenauer's job to pick them up at the airport.

So Hasenauer, president of an animal air-shipping company called Jet Pets Inc., hops in his pickup truck and heads for a dilapidated former Nike missile site in a remote corner of LAX. The DC-8 lands and then taxis onto the apron, and with Hasenauer carefully eyeing the cargo, handlers start unloading--first some pallets piled high with bulk cargo and then the horses, which are in large open-topped wooden shipping boxes, three in one box, two in the other. They're accompanied by a New Zealander groom, Bernie Hackett.

Hackett says the horses did just fine. Top shape. No problems. They didn't even get airsick, although he admits it's a little hard to tell if a horse is airsick, considering that horses can't throw up.

"We handle about 700 or 800 horses a year," Hasenauer said. "A lot of horses get sent to Japan or Australia for races or shows. They're flying all the time. Some of them have more flying miles behind them than most people do."

Meanwhile, thousands more horses pass through LAX on domestic flights every year. So do sheep, goats, fish, cattle, parrots, chickens--well, just about everything that walks, crawls or flies.

They are all air cargo.

And that's just the living, breathing part of the LAX air cargo world. Although most people think of LAX as a place that moves people, it also moves an astonishing array and volume of freight--about 2.8 billion pounds of cargo every year--everything from horses to textiles and soup to nuts, a little more than half of it packed in the bellies of commercial airliners along with your luggage, the rest in cargo aircraft.

LAX is now the busiest air cargo center in the nation. Every day about 7 million pounds of air cargo goes through LAX on 1,000 arriving and departing cargo and cargo-and-passenger flights.

It's sort of like a flying warehouse in the sky.

According to U.S. Department of Commerce figures on international imports and exports--which account for just under half of all LAX air cargo--the largest imported commodity coming through LAX was apparel, with 47,000 tons arriving in 1992, the last year for which figures are available. The biggest export from LAX was 33,000 tons of vegetables, fruits and nuts. In that same year, 18,000 tons of computer equipment and parts worth about $2.4 billion were exported through LAX, and 24,000 tons of computer equipment worth about $3.3 billion were imported.

There also were 7,000 tons of taps, valves, bearings and gaskets imported and exported, along with 6,000 tons of live animals and meat, 550 tons of feathers, artificial flowers and wigs; 16,000 tons of fish and crustaceans; 1,400 tons of musical instruments; 1,100 tons of arms and munitions; 1,700 tons of beverages, spirits and vinegar; 2,600 tons of jewelry and coins; 208 tons of animal and vegetable fats and oils. The list goes on and on.

There were even 57 tons of a category the Commerce Department describes, somewhat curiously, as "umbrellas, walking sticks and whips."

About 43% of LAX air cargo exports go to Asian countries, with Europe and Australia/Oceania following at 35% and 11%, respectively. About 70% of LAX imports come from Asia and about 17% from Europe.

Also about 175,000 tons of mail, domestic and international, moves through LAX every year.

"Anything that's valuable and can fit in a plane, alive or dead, moving or not moving, comes through here," said Rick Wells, assistant chief of airport planning for the Los Angeles Department of Airports.

Sometimes the air cargo is illicit. In May, U.S. Customs agents discovered a ton of Colombian cocaine hidden in a shipment of flexible rubber tubing inbound from Mexico aboard a chartered cargo plane. So far this year, customs agents have made four seizures of drug shipments hidden in air cargo.

All imported cargo passing through LAX is subject to U.S. Customs inspection. But with so much cargo moving through, officials can only inspect a portion of it.

"It's a daunting task," spokesman Michael Fleming said. "We have limited resources on what we can examine. The vast majority of cargo is legitimate, and we don't want to impede legitimate cargo, which could cause economic impacts. So we work selectively."

Air cargo is an important if little known--to the public at least--aspect of airport operations, Wells said. It doesn't have the glamour of passenger operations, and thus it traditionally hasn't gotten as much attention from airport officials as the passenger side of the flying business.

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