World’s Top 50 Cargo Airports — Part III: What can we learn about trade flows?

How does cargo unloaded from a UPS freighter in Shanghai differ from cargo unloaded from an Air China freighter?

Today we continue our multi-part series of posts analyzing freight flows through airports in 2016. In Part I we looked at the overall state of the air freight market in 2016, and provided chart showing the top 50 airports worldwide, ranked for international freight, domestic freight, and total freight handled. Yesterday, in Part II, we backed out into space and looked down for a high-level analysis, breaking down the data by continent and by country. (You can read Part I here, and Part II here.)

Today we zoom in for a closer look at what we believe to be the most important information that can be extracted from the cargo tonnage handled by the sixteen hundred airports that reported at least some freight to the Airports Council International.

Which is to say that, whatever the numbers on a chart, when it comes to airport rankings, “Top 50” or “Top 20” or “Top whatever,” 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 fifty does not provide definitive information about world trade.

Consider Dubai International (DXB). Go back to the chart in Part I and you will see that it ranks fifth in total cargo. But if you look down a bit, you will see Dubai World Central (DWC) in twenty-eighth 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).

But wait. Shanghai also has two major airports, and adding the freight handled at Hongqiao International (SHA) to Pudong International (PVG) would move it back ahead of the Dubai pair.

Another example is Tokyo: The city’s second airport, Haneda (HND), handled 1.14 million tonnes of total cargo in 2016. Add that to the 2.1 million tonnes handled at Narita (NRT) and Tokyo moves up, right behind 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 in transit between other origin and destination points. And the same applies to Anchorage, which serves as a transhipment point for freight moving between the US and Asia.

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. Memphis is a relatively small city in a relatively sparsely populated area of the US. It is not home to any significant industrial production, but it handled more freight in 2016 than any airport in the world except Hong Kong. How does one make sense of that?

To provide a better sense of what airport freight numbers tell us about world trade, consider the chart at right, which shows freight volume by urban agglomeration, but excludes airports that serve mainly as interline hubs. To compile this chart, we combined the freight handles of airports within a contiguous urban or industrial region that serves as the origin and/or destination for much of that freight.

The decision on whether to include or exclude a particular city or region was somewhat arbitrary, and you can build your own list if you don’t like ours, but the basic criterion was whether demand for most, or at least much, of the freight handled by the airports within a region was generated within that region. The greater Tokyo region, for example, is home to some 38 million people, and much of the freight that moves through its two airports originated in, or was destined for, the region. Not all, of course. None of the world’s major airports handles only cargo originating in or destined for its catchment area. But we have tried to exclude from the chart airports that serve mainly as interline hubs.

Memphis, as mentioned above, is the obvious example, but consider Miami. The three airports in or near Miami (Miami International, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, and Palm Beach International) handled a combined 2.1 million tonnes of freight in 2016. But while some of that freight originated in, or was destined for, southern Florida, most of it just passed through. Miami is a major hub for freight moving into and out of Latin America, and most of the freight passing through MIA was moving between points in Latin America and points in North America and Europe. And while Miami serves as an excellent hub for that traffic, its economy does not generate massive amounts of freight in the way that Tokyo’s does.

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

And if you want the real story, tune in tomorrow for a look at air freight from a perspective you never considered before…

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