Top 20 cargo airports for 2016

Top twenty airports 2016According to preliminary data from the Airports Council International, total cargo handled (loaded and unloaded freight and mail) by airports worldwide in 2016 was up 3.3% over 2015 to about 106 million tonnes. International freight handled was up 4.3% to about 66 million tonnes, accounting for a little more than 62% of the total volume.

Looking at the total cargo (freight plus mail) handled by the top twenty individual airports, we see relatively little change in rankings from last year – in fact, the same twenty airports are in the lineup, with only minor shuffling of the rankings. The top three airports remain unchanged from 201, and only two airports moved more than two positions – Doha’s Hamad International (DOH) continued to see spectacular increases in its cargo handle and jumped from 20th to 16th, while Chicago (ORD), despite a slight increase in cargo volume, dropped from 17th to 20th.

The story was much the same for international freight handled. The top twenty players remained the same, and only two of them moved up or down by more than one place – with Singapore (SIN) rising from 10th to 8th, and Doha jumping to 11th place from 14th.

For the most part, the tonnage growth at the top airports was in line with the overall growth, with most reporting low-to-mid-single-digit gains. However, Doha stands out with cargo volume up more than 20%. DOH is the home of Qatar Airways, and the big increases in the airport’s handle are a reflection of the phenomenal growth of Qatar Airways’ cargo business. (Although the 20% gain in 2016 pales in comparison to the 46% jump in 2015).

But, whatever the numbers on the chart, when it comes to airport rankings, “top twenty” must be treated with considerable skepticism. That is not to say that the numbers are flawed, but rather that an airport’s position in or out of the top twenty does not provide definitive information about trade flows.

Consider Dubai International (DXB). It ranks fifth in total cargo, but if you look at the international freight rankings you will see Dubai World Central (DWC) in twentieth place. These airports are just a few kilometers apart and, in 2014, the Dubai government moved all freighter traffic from DXB to the newly built DWC. It also built an in-bond highway connecting the two so that carriers could interline their belly and main-deck freight. DXB and DWC are really just parts of one big airport, and if you add the almost 900,000 tonnes handled at DWC to the DXB total, the combination would jump to third place, behind FedEx’s Memphis hub (MEM), and ahead of Shanghai Pudong (PVG).

Or would it? Because Shanghai also has two major airports, and adding the freight (mostly domestic) handled at Hongqiao International (SHA) to Pudong International (PVG) might move it ahead of the Dubai pair.

Another example is Tokyo: The city’s second airport, Haneda (HND), handled just over 1 million tonnes of total cargo in 2015 and likely even more in 2016. Add that to the 2.1 million tonnes handled at Narita (NRT) and Tokyo moves up, shoulder to shoulder with Dubai and Shanghai.

All of which leads to a second observation: In terms of airfreight, Dubai and Tokyo are fundamentally different. Whereas much of the cargo flying into and out of Tokyo is destined for, or originated in, Tokyo and its environs, most of the cargo moving into and out of Dubai is actually in transit between far-away origin and destination points. And then there are airports like Memphis (MEM) and Louisville (SDF), which are the hubs for the FedEx and UPS hub-and-spoke express networks – different again from airports in either Tokyo or Dubai.

Not that one of those types of airport is better than the other, but they are completely different, and simply knowing their total tonnage handled only tells part of their story.

Those interested in learning more about how leading cargo airports are evolving to match the needs of today’s airfreight market are invited to join us next week in Shanghai, April 25-26, for Cargo Facts Asia 2017. Executives from Brussels Airport Company, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, IATA, Kale Logistics and Shanghai Airport will join a panel discussion dedicated to the topic of Airport Evolution and the Rise of Air Cargo Communities.  To register, or for more information, visit 

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