Atlantic City International Airport’s growth strategy has focused primarily on attracting more airline service, but a new element is emerging — packages, as well as passengers.

There are no cargo carriers serving the airport; UPS, FedEx, DHL and other air-freight companies simply don’t fly here. And the prospects of having them land at Atlantic City International any time soon are unclear.

But cargo carriers are highly coveted. Airport supporters argue that cargo operators may be just as prized as passenger airlines because of the jobs and economic development they could bring to the region.

“I don’t think there is anything more important to the county and the region than the expansion of the airport and the creation of jobs,” said Absecon Mayor John Armstrong, one of the area’s leading proponents of air-cargo operations.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which took over operation of Atlantic City International in July, said it is in talks with cargo carriers and related companies, but did not name them. Those discussions are going on simultaneously with the authority’s efforts to draw new passenger air service.

“The Port Authority’s mission at Atlantic City International Airport is primarily to increase the number of commercial-passenger air carriers. Such efforts, however, also boost cargo operations, since the majority of air cargo currently moves in the holds of passenger aircraft,” agency spokesman Ron Marsico said in a statement.

Marsico said the talks include not just the possibility of cargo operators flying here but having shipping companies develop new facilities on the airport grounds.

Airport backers assert that cargo carriers and shipping companies are absolutely key to Atlantic City International’s growth. They believe the region’s casino-dominated economy could be diversified if cargo carriers establish a home base here.

Armstrong maintained that thousands of job losses in the casino industry in recent years have created an economic crisis. He sees the airport’s development as offering the greatest chance for a turnaround.

“We are in a depression in this area — not a recession, a depression,” he said. “It’s independent of the national economy. I think that the best and perhaps only realistic opportunity to generate new jobs, reasonably good-paying jobs, is through the utilization of the airport.”

Some planning has begun. An updated version of the airport’s 2010 master plan envisions a 20-acre site on the airfield to accommodate cargo carriers and a freight-handling facility. The area would handle as many as five large cargo planes, such as the ones used by the major freight carriers. But the project remains on the drawing board while Atlantic City International awaits the arrival of the cargo companies.

Industrial parks in Absecon and other Atlantic County communities surrounding the airport — located 10 miles west of Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township — could provide the land and infrastructure to support cargo operations, Armstrong said.

Also working in the airport’s favor is a centralized location and a well-developed highway network that would serve the cargo companies well once their planes land and packages are transferred to trucks for final shipment, one state lawmaker said.

“The cargo capitalizes on the location of the airport, sort of in the center of the East Coast megalopolis,” said Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “If you fly to Atlantic City, you’re in the middle of New York, Washington, D.C., and Philly.”

Whelan encouraged the Port Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the airport’s owner, to aggressively pursue cargo carriers instead of spending too much time and energy on courting passenger airlines.

“I think you have a better chance of landing cargo carriers than the traditional passenger ones,” Whelan said. “I’d love to be wrong about domestic flights coming, but I don’t see anything showing me success there.”

Prior to taking over Atlantic City International’s operations last year, the Port Authority commissioned a $3 million consulting study to gauge the potential for new air service and cargo operations. QED Airport & Aviation Consultants, in a 58-page report, recommended air cargo as a new source of airport revenue, although most of its findings focused on the benefits of more airline service.

Spirit Airlines is currently the airport’s only scheduled carrier. However, the Port Authority has signed up United Airlines for daily service to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs beginning April 1.

The airport’s growth is a crucial part of Gov. Chris Christie’s five-year initiative to boost Atlantic City tourism. The governor wants to revive the casino industry by attracting more conventioneers and overnight visitors. Under the plan, the day-tripping gamblers who have been lost to competing casino markets in surrounding states would be replaced by visitors who fly to Atlantic City and stay a few nights.

While debate continues on the likelihood of that strategy succeeding in coming years, some are pushing for an immediate lift to the local economy. Armstrong bluntly said, “We’re desperate here.”

“We don’t have a lot of time,” he continued. “We need more jobs. It’s got to be related to that airport. That’s all we’ve got, and it’s a lot.”

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.