The World’s top 50 cargo carriers Part II — what’s with the data?

Amazon’s Prime Air Network began to have an impact on the cargo carrier rankings in 2016, and that impact will increase in the coming years.

Yesterday, in Part I of this analysis we included a chart showing our best estimate of the international, domestic, and total cargo traffic (including mail and both scheduled and charter freight) flown by the top fifty carrier groups worldwide. But why do we call it our “best estimate,” and how is our best estimate different from someone else’s “Top 50” list? You can read Part I here, and we repeat the chart at the bottom of today’s post, but here is the story behind it:

First, there is no single source for complete and accurate cargo traffic data. Different sources will often report different totals for the same carrier, and carriers do not always report their traffic the same way. Our main sources were reports compiled and issued by IATA and the US Department of Transportation, as well as statistics published by the carriers themselves.

Second, not all carriers report their traffic. Many of these non-reporting carriers are relatively insignificant, but some would almost certainly alter the rankings if they did report. Yangtze River Airlines (YRA), for example, operates three 747-400Fs, three 737-400Fs, and fourteen 737-300Fs. Including YRA would significantly boost the total of its majority owner, HNA Group. Other significant cargo carriers not reporting their traffic data are Air Atlanta Icelandic, MNG Airlines, and European regional specialists ASL Group and West Atlantic.

AeroLogic is one of many carriers in the extended DHL Express family.

Third, there is no easy (or accurate) way to show the huge cargo presence of DHL Express. DHL owns, or is a joint-venture partner in, several airlines, some of which do not report their traffic. On top of this, unlike FedEx and UPS, DHL moves a significant percentage of its shipments using purchased or leased space on non-affiliated carriers worldwide. For this report, we have added up the traffic flown by DHL Air, EAT Leipzig, DHL International, ABX Air, AeroLogic, Air Hong Kong, Blue Dart Aviation, Polar Air Cargo, and Southern Air, and show it in the chart as “DHL Express.” This under-represents DHL’s total, but at least gives a sense of just how much cargo the German express company moves.

It also hides the size of two major players in the air freight business: Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW) and Air Transport Services Group (ATSG). AAWW, for example, has three airline subsidiaries: Polar Air Cargo (in which DHL has a minority stake), Southern Air, and Atlas Air. While it is true that much of the cargo flown by Polar and Southern is for DHL, they are still part of AAWW, and if one were to group them with Atlas Air, rather than DHL Express, it would give AAWW a 2016 total of 10.50 billion RTKs – making it the fifth-largest carrier in the world.

Likewise, if one considers ABX Air as part of ATSG’s operation, along with sister carrier Air Transport International (ATI), then ATSG becomes one of the world’s biggest domestic cargo carriers, and also enters the total cargo ranks, though further down at #39.

Regarding the data, we have chosen to show all cargo traffic – both freight and mail, flown in both scheduled and charter operation. Many “top cargo carrier” lists include only scheduled freight traffic, but we believe that including mail along with freight, and charter operation as well as scheduled service gives a much better picture of the overall industry.

We also show merged, or about-to-be-merged, carriers as single entities, and include the traffic of subsidiary carriers with their parents. So Lufthansa, for example, includes not only Lufthansa Cargo, but also the cargo activities of SWISS, Austrian Airlines, and Brussels Airlines. In addition to Lufthansa and DHL Express (see above), other groups shown under a single name include:

  • AirBridgeCargo/Volga-Dnepr Airlines (as Volga-Dnepr Group)
  • Air China/Air Macau/Shandong Airlines/Shenzhen Airlines
  • Air France/KLM/Martinair
  • Avianca/Avianca Brasil
  • British Airways/Iberia/Aer Lingus (as IAG Group)
  • Cargolux/Cargolux Italia
  • Cathay Pacific/Cathay Dragon
  • China Eastern Airlines/Shanghai Airlines
  • China Southern/Xiamen Airlines/Sichuan Airlines
  • FedEx/ASL Airlines Belgium/Morningstar Air Express
  • Hainan Airlines/Hong Kong Airlines/Tianjin Airlines (as HNA Group)
  • LATAM Chile, LATAM Basil, and LATAM Paraguay (as LATAM Group)

And finally, the mention of AAWW and ATSG, above, brings up the subject of the new kid on the air freight block in 2016: Amazon Prime Air. In late 2015, Amazon began testing the idea of running its own air operation. Following a five-freighter trial with ATSG, Amazon entered the game in a big way, signing agreements with both ATSG and AAWW, under which each of these two companies would operate twenty 767 freighters for the e-commerce giant, with all forty to be in service by the end of 2018. Prime Air gave a boost to the cargo traffic of ABX, ATI, and Atlas Air in 2016, but its impact will be much greater in 2017, and greater still in 2018.

Despite all the above caveats, and given that the top fifty airlines carry about 95% of the world’s cargo traffic, we feel that the chart provides a reasonably accurate picture of the air cargo scene in 2016.

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