"I think there's undoubtedly a benefit from having the world's cargo airlines and leaders to come to your city, just to experience it firsthand, go through the airport and hear from your leaders directly," Bob Pertierra, the Metro Atlanta Chamber's vice president of supply chain and advanced manufacturing, told Global Atlanta.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest passenger airport in the world but ranks ninth among U.S. cargo hubs. Still, with 14 all-cargo airlines flying into the airport, it has a massive multiplier effect on the regional economy.
Logistics overall accounts for 1 million jobs in Georgia, and Atlanta is the No. 5 American city for supply-chain jobs, according to the chamber.
Mr. Reed has said he'd like to see the airport working 24 hours a day to fulfill its economic potential, with passengers arriving by day and pallets laden with goods flying in on dedicated freighters after dark.
Mr. LaHood pointed to the cargo industry's importance to the fulfillment of President Obama's National Export Initiative, which was launched in 2010 with the goal of doubling American exports in five years.
While air cargo only accounts for about 3 percent of global trade tonnage, it makes up about 30 percent of the value by transporting products like pharmaceuticals, electronics and medical devices, he said.
The Transportation Department is keen on opening new aviation markets by signing more Open Skies agreements, bilateral pacts that allow airlines to fly between countries without government restrictions on the routes, Mr. LaHood said. The secretary also called for foreign governments to remove protectionist barriers and to collaborate to streamline customs processing.
On broader transportation issues, Mr. LaHood was confident that Congress would tackle America's infrastructure woes next year, after the hubbub over the November elections dies down.
While he praised the passage of the two-year, $105 billion highway bill known as MAP-21 in June, some attendees wondered aloud why Washington didn't have a longer-term plan to fund infrastructure.
Mr. LaHood pointed to an environment of austerity in Congress and said that more transportation funding battles would be fought after the election.