An Amazon Air Boeing 737 from the ground shortly after takeoff. Photo: Adobe Stock.

With multiple large-scale logistics and distribution warehouses being planned in the Calverton hamlet, and the prospect of another 9-million-square-feet of logistics buildings lining the two runways at the Calverton Enterprise Park, the local community is abuzz with speculation — and bracing for whatever might come next.

Logistics and distribution facilities can — and do — serve a variety of retailers engaged in e-commerce, including big players like Walmart and Chewy. But the 800-ton gorilla lurking in every Calverton resident’s mind is, of course, the e-commerce giant, Amazon. And when the potential for air cargo in Calverton was added to the mix, many residents grew worried about Amazon establishing a distribution hub there.

An engineer for Calverton Aviation and Technology — the Triple Five affiliate in contract with Riverhead Town to purchase the industrial property at EPCAL — brought up Amazon as an example of the kind of tenant that the Calverton facility would serve if developed by the company.

Amazon is building or leasing “last-mile” distribution centers throughout Long Island to get online purchases to consumers, engineer Chris Robinson told the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency during the developer’s presentation of its plans on Sept. 21. Right now, goods are delivered to the last-mile centers by tractor-trailers hauling cargo from larger warehouses or airports like JFK and Newark. They are the only two airports in the New York region that currently handle cargo.

“Currently, that end of the logistics business is not handled on Long Island,” said Robinson, an engineer and principal in R&M Engineering in Huntington, Triple Five’s engineering consultants on the Calverton project.

“This would be an incredible opportunity to bring that here…to provide that on Long Island and help feed Long Island from that end of it, versus all of the trucking that currently comes…from points west,” Robinson said during the IDA presentation.

MORE COVERAGE: Air cargo logistics hub in Calverton planned by Triple Five affiliate to enhance package delivery services on Long Island

But would Amazon be interested in the Calverton site as an air cargo hub?

“We do not currently have any plans to add this airport to our network,” Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson told RiverheadLOCAL Tuesday. 

Researchers at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago have been studying Amazon’s expansion in the transportation and logistics industries. The institute publishes “Amazon Air Briefs,” research articles on the growth of Amazon’s cargo airline, Amazon Air, and the network of airports served by the airline across the country, using publicly available information.

“Amazon Air’s expansion is one of the most notable developments in the air-cargo industry in recent years, constituting the most ambitious effort by a global retailer to date to bring airborne freight shipments ‘in-house.’ Its network has continuously expanded even as activity at many players in this sector has plateaued or even diminished,” according to a brief published by the institute on March 7

There are more than 91 planes registered to Amazon Air and bearing its logo, though Amazon Air does not have an airline operating certificate and relies on contractors to operate its freighters, according to the Chaddick brief.

The brief documents the role of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International (CVG) Airport as one of Amazon Air’s major hubs, supported by the smaller Wilmington Airpark, in ensuring overnight deliveries coast-to-coast. Afternoon and early morning flight clusters allow for package transfers between more than 125 combinations of flights, Chaddick researchers found.

Nevertheless, says Chaddick director Joseph Schwieterman, “Metropolitan New York has been a struggle for Amazon.” 

“New York poses challenges like no other urbanized region,” Schwieterman, a transportation and urban planning expert and professor at DePaul University, said in an interview.

“Right now, Amazon Air serves the region from several more outlying points,” he said. “Long Island is a weak spot, a unique difficulty for Amazon.”

According to Schwieterman, Calverton would be a good location for those reasons alone, but “the ability to complement air operations with on-premises or on-airport warehouses makes it a very attractive, very attractive industrial park.” 

Schwieterman drew an analogy between Calverton and Lakeland-Linder Airport in Florida. Lakeland-Linder is a general aviation airport outside of Tampa in “a quasi-rural area.” Amazon came in and “quickly made this one of the largest hubs in their system,” he said.

“Amazon has a propensity to use airports with limited or no passenger traffic, what we call cargo-dominant airports,” he said. 

Schwieterman said Wilmington Airpark in Ohio is also “another really good example.” 

Like Calverton, Wilmington is a former military installation. It also has two concrete-surfaced runways — one 10,700 feet long and the other 9,000 feet long. It is located 60 miles from a major Amazon hub, CVG — a distance similar to that between Calverton and JFK. 

Amazon Air’s operations at Wilmington complement its operations at the much-larger CVG, and Calverton could function in the same capacity, he said. 

Although an Amazon spokesperson said the company does not have plans to lease at Calverton, there is no reason to believe it couldn’t happen in the near future — especially since fully developing the site could take around a decade. 

Schwieterman cautioned that he has never heard of Amazon Air making a commitment several years in advance. “I just have never heard that. You know, one day they start service and it usually comes as a surprise,” he said. “There’s not two years of build-up where they’re putting in warehouses first.” 

In addition, he said, “Amazon is playing it safe right now, with the recent slowdown of online sales. It’s hard for them to plan out three or four years in this turbulent environment we’re in now.” Schweiterman said he would be very surprised if the Calverton developer had anything more than “a vague expression of interest from Amazon” at this point. 

But Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson took issue with the Chaddick’s Institute’s research. 

“The Chaddick Institute’s work does not capture the nature of Amazon Air’s business model,” Stephenson said. 

“Articles based on the Chaddick Institute’s assumptions can serve to mislead readers, which is the case here,” he said.

The institute’s website states that it does not work with Amazon on its briefs. Amazon Air’s traffic statistics are not publicly available due to its service being provided almost entirely by contractors, according to the website. The institute’s website contains a disclaimer that the briefs “should be viewed as editorial viewpoints, subject to the existing data limitations and covering only certain aspects of the entity’s complex operations.”

Nevertheless, Amazon being name-dropped by both Robinson, and days later by Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar in an interview with News 12, has some residents fearing that Amazon or a similar company could set up shop in Riverhead. Since last year’s IDA presentation, Calverton residents especially have come out against Calverton Aviation and Technology’s plans to create an air cargo logistics hub on the property. The opposition from residents, as well as the Town Board’s Democratic candidates this year, has primed the land-deal to be the hottest topic of the local political campaign season. 

-With Alek Lewis

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