Top 20 cargo airports in 2017

According to preliminary data from the Airports Council International, total cargo handled (loaded and unloaded freight and mail) by airports worldwide in 2017 was up 7.9% over 2016 to about 118 million tonnes. International freight handled was up 9.9% to about 73 million tonnes, accounting for 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 four airports remain unchanged from 2016, and no airport moved more than two positions – Doha’s Hamad International (DOH) continued to see strong increases in its cargo handle – up 15.0% over 2016, as did Chicago (ORD) and Shanghai Pudong (PVG), up 12.6% and 11.2%, respectively.

The story was much the same for international freight handled. Nineteen of the top twenty airports in 2016 returned in 2017, with the only newcomer being Istanbul (IST), which replaced Dubai (DWC) in twentieth spot. Only two airports moved up or down by more than one place – with Shanghai Pudong (PVG) rising from 4th  to 2nd, and Paris (CDG) dropping from 9th to 11th. Seven of the top twenty reported double-digit year-over-year percentage growth, led by Istanbul (IST), at 16.5%.

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 sixth in total cargo, but Dubai World Central (DWC) was in twentieth place in the international rankings in 2016, and likely handled about 1 million tonnes in 2017. 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 volume handled at DWC to the DXB total, the combination would jump to fourth place, with almost as much cargo as Shanghai Pudong (PVG).

But wait. Shanghai also has two major airports, and adding the freight (mostly domestic) handled at Hongqiao International (SHA) to Pudong International (PVG) would move Shanghai right up beside Memphis, and still well ahead of Dubai.

Another example is Tokyo: The city’s second airport, Haneda (HND), handled over 1 million tonnes of total cargo in 2016 and likely even more in 2017. Add that to the 2.3 million tonnes handled at Narita (NRT) and Tokyo moves up, shoulder to shoulder with Dubai.

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 in two weeks in Shanghai, April 23-25, for Cargo Facts Asia 2018, where we will devote a session to Asia’s evolving cargo gateways.  To register, or for more information, visit

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