E-commerce and express traffic drive growth at Seattle’s airport in 2016

Amazon's "Prime One" takes to the skies over Seattle.
Amazon’s “Prime One” takes to the skies over Seattle.

Last year, Seattle-based Amazon launched a dedicated air freight network, “Prime Air” and began carrying cargo between major distribution centers in the United States with a fleet of 767 freighters operated operated by Atlas Air and ATSG. With initial plans that call for a fleet of forty aircraft by 2020, at last count, eighteen aircraft have already been put into service. Now that Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) has published its December 2016 monthly traffic statistics, a clearer picture of this online-gone-airline’s impact on cargo is beginning to emerge.

Sea-Tac, the closest airport to Amazon’s headquarters, reported its December cargo handle up 23% y-o-y, to 37,000 tonnes. International airfreight was up a tidy 13.0%, on higher volumes from China-based Hainian Airlines, and British Airways which carry freight in the bellies of their passenger aircraft. Russia-based AirBridgeCargo also launched weekly freighter service to Seattle in 2016, and has been growing its market share of Seattle-area cargo volumes.  But despite the double-digit growth in 2016 international cargo handle, it was domestic airfreight growth that pushed up the overall total, as it surged a whopping 40% – almost exclusively because of e-commerce and express related air freight.

Seattle’s total cargo handle in 2016 was 10% higher, driven by a 20% (33,000 tonne) increase in domestic air freight handle. Domestic growth, more than made up for flat international growth (which was down about half of one-percent, compared to 2015) was primarily driven by two factors: the launch of Prime Air, and DHL’s decision to relocate its air freight operations from Boeing Field International (BFI) to SEA. Since ATSG-affiliate airlines carry freight for both Prime Air and DHL, it is not possible to completely isolate the impact of Prime Air without airport-to-airport enplaned and deplaned freight figures, which are not yet available.

Still, the expanding presence of ABX Air and Air Transport International at SEA in 2016 confirm the persistent growth of e-commerce and express-related air freight. Combined tonnage from both carriers at Sea-Tac in 2016 was almost identical to the domestic growth figure, some 31,000 tonnes. In 2015 by contrast, the two carriers moved only 233 tonnes through SEA.

Looking at other major domestic express carriers in the Seattle region, FedEx which also operates at SEA had flat airfreight volumes for the year 2016, with annual growth of just 0.4%. To be fair, FedEx started from a much higher base of 102,000 tonnes in 2015. UPS meanwhile, continues to operate out of nearby BFI airport, which does not make monthly statistics available.  Although data from one airport is an insufficient basis from which to draw conclusions, moving into 2017 we will continue to monitor the relationship between Prime Air and the domestic overnight operations of  other major express carriers.

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