World’s Top 50 Cargo Airports — Part I

Hong Kong International retained its position as the busiest airport in the world, handling 4.5 million tonnes of freight in 2016.

According to data supplied by the Airports Council International (ACI), airports worldwide handled a total of 103.1 million tonnes of freight (not including mail) in 2016, up 4.0% over the 2015 total. Of the almost 2,500 ACI member airports, 1,600 reported handling some freight, with the fifty busiest airports handling 69.1 million tonnes, 67.1% of the overall total.

Today we begin a multi-part examination of the cargo airport scene with a look at the overall picture, and a chart showing the top 50 airports worldwide, ranked for international freight, domestic freight, and total freight handled. Next week we will carry on with a more in-depth analysis, breaking down the data by continent, by country, and by urban region. (You can read Part II here.)

The overall 4.0% increase in the tonnage of freight handled is quite close to the 3.8% increase in worldwide cargo traffic flown by airlines in 2016, as reported by IATA, and reflects the gradual strengthening of air freight demand that began in June 2016, after five months of slight declines, and gradually accelerated through the remainder of the year.

The chart below shows the top fifty for both international, domestic, and total freight, with comparative rankings from 2015 in parentheses. As is evident at a quick glance, there was relatively little change from last year, with Hong Kong once again leading the way for both international and total freight handled, while Memphis, home to FedEx, was the biggest handler of domestic freight.

Most of the top fifty either maintained their positions, or shuffled up or down by one or two spots. There were some slightly larger gains or drops near the bottoms of the three categories, where the tonnages are smaller, but the one change that stands out is a 13-position fall at Jeddah (JED, Saudia Cargo’s hub in Saudi Arabia), which dropped from the world’s 30th busiest international freight airport in 2015, to 43rd in 2016, as Saudia parked all of its owned freighters.

Before we leave the subject of airports rising and falling in the rankings, and risk having sharp-eyed readers calling and emailing to ask how we could have missed the 27-rank jump by Memphis, from 61st to 34th position, in the international rankings, we point out that we did not miss it. Nor did we miss something not shown in the chart: that although Memphis retained its position as the busiest airport for domestic freight, according to ACI data, its domestic handle declined by more than 6%.

We saw both of those things, we just didn’t believe them.

ACI’s report shows that the volume of international freight handled at MEM in 2016 more than doubled from 2015 – up 114% y-o-y from 238,000 tonnes to 510,000 tonnes. At the same time, the volume of domestic freight handled fell by 6%, from 4.05 million tonnes to 3.80 million tonnes. Both of these changes seemed unlikely, and, even more tellingly, the absolute tonnage involved in each is almost identical: International freight up by 272,000 tonnes, domestic freight down by 248,000 tonnes. Which made it look – to us at least – like a clerical error or a reporting change. Our suspicion was that something reported as domestic freight in 2015 was reported as international in 2016.

Since all but a tiny amount of the freight at MEM is generated by FedEx, we asked the integrator about the odd numbers. The answer was that, yes, the shift was the result of a change in reporting methodology, not the result of some massive shift in the balance between FedEx’s domestic and international freight at its Memphis hub.

FedEx did not specify just which freight had been re-allocated from domestic to international, but, for this year at least, we have to ignore the massive increase in the international freight handled at Memphis.

With that caveat out of the way, here is the chart:

* Note: Number in parentheses is the previous year rank.

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