Top twenty cargo airports in 2015

According to Airports Council International, total cargo handled (loaded and unloaded freight and mail) by airports worldwide in 2015 was up 2.4% over 2014 to about 103 million tonnes. International freight handled was up 2.2% to 63 million tonnes, accounting for a little more than 61% of the total volume.

Looking at the total cargo (freight plus mail) handled by the top twenty individual airports, we see relatively little change from last year. The top three airports remain unchanged from 2014, while Anchorage swapped fourth and fifth places with Incheon, and there was some further shuffling of positions below the top five. The biggest move came from Doha’s Hamad International (DOH), which entered the top twenty for the first time, moving up from twenty-fourth last year and nudging New York (JFK) out of the list.

The story was much the same for international freight handled. No airport moved up or down by more than three places, and only one new name appeared in the list, as Dubai World Central (DWC) moved up from twenty-first to twentieth, bumping nearby Abu Dhabi (AUH) out of the top twenty.

While the rankings did not change much, there were a couple of surprises in the year-over-year data. Doha’s total handle jumped 46.4% and its international handle was up even more – 47.3%. 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. The other big jump was at Chicago’s O’Hare International (ORD), which reported its total cargo handle up 15.6% and its international freight handle up 21.0%. Chicago has been an important cargo gateway to North America for some time, and the sudden growth cannot be explained by the activity of any single carrier. However, after years of congestion, ORD was in a position in 2015 to enjoy the benefit of runway expansion and other capacity growth.

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 and created 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 2014 and likely even more in 2015. 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 other 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.

If you are interested in learning more about the trends underlying the changes in the air freight business in 2015 and ahead in 2016, register now to join us at Cargo Facts Asia in Hong Kong 19 – 20 April. Go to to register or get more information.

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