Central Pennsylvania is already blessed with a diversity of industries, which helps to moderate the region's economy for sustained stability.
But do we produce more than we consume? Do we export more than we import?
The answers are more complex than yes and no. However, there is some evidence that the midstate has a better production economy than other places: About 60 percent of all cargo at Harrisburg International Airport is outbound, and our metro areas are decent exporters compared with other top U.S. cities.
Academics and transportation experts see these as positive signs for southcentral Pennsylvania's economy, but especially because the air cargo numbers illustrate the large impact logistics and distribution play here.
Get on the plane
Thousands of planes and people fly into and out of HIA every year. Officials there said they have a good picture of who is using the airport, such as business travelers, and where they're going.
However, they're trying to learn more about the cargo that moves through HIA.
"We want to understand this cargo market better," said Scott Miller, the airport's spokesman.
What they've found so far is that consistently — every year since 2008 — more cargo weight flies out of HIA than into it. In 2012, outbound cargo was more than 62 percent of the total cargo weight, according to statistics from HIA.
Even during the recession in 2009, when total cargo dipped by more than 10 percent, more cargo still flew out of the airport, according to statistics. Outbound cargo was 56 percent of the total that year.
Total cargo tons also grew, by 2.79 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to statistics. As of August, this year is shaping up to be on par with 2008 and about 1 percent less than last year.
On average, 58 percent of all freight is outbound through HIA, said Tim Edwards, executive director of the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, HIA's owner.
"To me, that's a fairly balanced result," he said, explaining that the airport looks more at total freight for its business indicators.
"(The air cargo) tells me we have a fairly stable economy and economic base," Edwards said.
The airport cargo numbers could be considered a trade surplus for Central Pennsylvania. However, the HIA numbers reflect merely weight of goods and not a dollar value, the way national trade numbers do.
Cargo not mainly on the plane
Depending on how it's viewed, HIA's outbound cargo surplus could be an indicator of a thriving regional export economy. But some analysts urge caution, saying there's more to the transportation, logistics and distribution sectors than one airport's cargo, including the massive amount of goods that move by truck and train.
"I'm not sure someone can say much without looking at the broader freight numbers," said Bill Bellinger, an economics professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle.
The amount of merchandise moving by train and truck could eclipse air cargo, even if what is flying out of HIA is mostly gathered from the midstate's producers, he said.
"We've always had this sort of thing, and there's plenty of blue-collar stuff in this region, but (those industries are) more services like transportation than manufacturing," Bellinger said.
For example, location quotients are a good way to get a feel for what a regional economy looks like compared with the national economy, he said. Cumberland County has a distribution quotient of 3, or three times as much warehousing compared with the overall U.S. market. It has twice as much management services and one-and-a-half times the insurance and finance industry compared with the national economy.
Manufacturing, which is an important outbound freight source, is 30 percent smaller that what the national economy has, Bellinger said. Other areas look similar, he said.
In addition, there's no way to tell what amount of cargo shipped out of HIA was generated by midstate companies. Nor can you determine from the numbers whether it balances out the massive amount of goods produced elsewhere bought by consumers and companies.
In other words, air cargo is an incomplete picture.
"I think it's one indicator," Edwards said. "That's why we give those numbers on a monthly basis."
However, Memphis-based FedEx Corp., HIA's largest freight carrier, shows air cargo is a regional export. Last year, it carried more than 29,600 tons in and out of HIA, or 58 percent of total air cargo.
FedEx's 285 flights a month aggregate packages from the midstate region, as well as from trucks and flights from other Pennsylvania cities, spokesman Scott Fiedler said.
"It's faster to fly things over to Scranton or Williamsport in some cases," he said.
HIA is called a "ramp" airport, like a highway on-ramp, moving packages into FedEx's global highway, he said.
"The sophistication of logistics today," Fiedler said, "is truly amazing."
The numbers do demonstrate a fair representation of the local economy's health, analysts said.
Even if you can't say definitively that air cargo represents a trade surplus, it does represent the importance of the freight industries to the region.
In 2006, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission's Regional Goods Movement Study found that 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, or $15.9 trillion worth of goods, comes through Central Pennsylvania.
Sixty-nine percent of that was through-traffic, with 17 percent outbound from the midstate and 14 percent inbound, said Tim Reardon, the commission's executive director.
Even if manufacturing is smaller today, there's still enough of it to contribute to outbound traffic, he said. The commission wants to update the study to see how freight movement through the region has changed, he said.
That's the same reason the airport is studying cargo more closely.
"We're trying to figure out what's being put on the airplanes," HIA's Miller said. "When you look at 2008, it's a different world today in what's being put on the airplanes."
The numbers definitely illustrate a healthy distribution economy, but you can't derive much else, said Pete Swan, associate professor of logistics and operations management at Penn State Harrisburg.
For starters, some things could skew HIA's outbound tonnage and its relevance to the economy, such as shipments from military bases in the area, he said.
"What could throw that off is the military component, which is not necessarily responding to the economy," he said.
The air freight numbers certainly reaffirm the value of distribution, Reardon said.
"(Freight companies) do bring a benefit to this area," he said. "If we got rid of all those trucks and warehouses, we'd still have 69 percent moving through here. ... In the long run, there's a benefit to having those things here."
While total cargo numbers for the past five years are generally rising, 2013 could be a down year compared with 2012.
So far, the airport has handled 33,423 tons of cargo. That puts it about on pace with 2008, according to numbers from HIA. From January to August 2008, HIA handled 33,406 tons; from January to August 2012, it handled 33,751 tons.
Here is a look at 2013's airport cargo numbers up to August compared with the same period in 2008:
Outbound cargo (tons): 19,694
Inbound cargo (tons): 13,729
Outbound difference (tons): 5,965
Total cargo (tons): 33,423
Annual change (from 2012): -0.97 percent
Change from 2008: 0.05 percent
Source: Harrisburg International Airport
Midstate exports of goods and services to other countries could be a wild card in freight and air cargo numbers, or at least one more lens through which to view midstate freight. And two local metro areas cracked the top 100 in 2012.
Lancaster had $3.1 billion in exports, ranking it 84th in the top 100 metro areas, according to the Brookings Institution’s Export Nation 2013 report. The Harrisburg-Carlisle metro had $2.6 billion in exports, placing it at No. 90.
However, both metros significantly improved exports during the past eight years. Harrisburg’s export growth rate from 2003 to 2008 was 11.2 percent, placing the area No. 15 in the nation for growth in that time period, according to Brookings. The metro had an export growth rate of 4.6 percent from 2009 to 2012.
Lancaster metro area’s exports were 14.1 percent of its total output, giving it a ranking of 30th in the nation for that metric, according to Brookings. Lancaster’s exports grew 5.3 percent from 2003 to 2008 and 5.8 percent from 2009 to 2012.