Rickenbacker International Airport is welcoming a record number of international cargo shipments. The challenge for airport officials has been to get more cargo flying outbound to fill up the big freighter jets.

Airport officials now are making it possible -- and more comfortable -- for more cargo of the four-legged variety to make that journey.

A new $423,000 animal-transport facility at the airport southeast of Columbus includes 12 new animal stalls as well as offices for airport workers and U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel, who must inspect horses and determine that they are healthy enough for the long trip ahead.

The facility has direct access to the airfield and easy access from public roads that are used to transport the animals by truck or trailer.

The facility is certified and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for shipping livestock -- and is one of fewer than 50 such facilities in the country. It's the only one in Ohio, according to the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, which oversees Rickenbacker and John Glenn Columbus international airports.

Thoroughbred horses are of particular interest to the airport because they are frequently shipped to wealthy overseas buyers.

Federal regulations require horses to be able to walk around and rest before they embark on a flight. Before the Rickenbacker facility was built, the airport contracted with local property owners to use their facilities on an as-needed basis.

"Our customers can handle the resting and inspection processes in a safe, quiet area that is minutes away from waiting aircraft," Joseph Nardone, president and CEO of the airport authority, said in a statement.

"Most importantly, the animals are under less stress because they spend less time in transport with fewer stops along the way."

Sean Nix of shipper M2 Transport has used Rickenbacker to ship horses several times from Kentucky horse country since being called on by Rickenbacker officials, who pitched the airport as a closer, better alternative to those in Chicago and New York.

Nix hasn't seen the new facility, but said he's eager to and looks forward to possibly using it for some shipments in the fall.

"It's climate-controlled, which is good because a lot of our horses leave during the fall and winter months, which can be very cold," Nix said.

"Also, this allows the USDA to be there around the clock to monitor the horses from when they arrive until when they are loaded on the plane. ... A lot can happen to a horse after hours of travel and waiting to be loaded. Some horses may not take the changing conditions as well as others."

Since livestock shipments started in 2015, Rickenbacker has sent more than 700 horses, cows, pigs, sheep and goats to locales including Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. A shipment of 65 hogs headed for Spain in August is scheduled to be one of the first shipments from the revamped facility.

The airport also serves the occasional exotic animal. In 2015, an endangered rhinoceros was relocated from the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden to a breeding sanctuary in Indonesia.

mrose@dispatch.com

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