The world’s top 50 cargo carriers Part III: The big picture

Today, in Part III of our annual analysis of the world’s top cargo carriers, we step back from the rankings of individual carriers to see what those rankings tell us about the air freight and express market in general in 2016. (You can read Part I here, and Part II here.)

Digging a little deeper into the data, some interesting trends emerge. The top chart at right compares the domestic, international, and total traffic flown by carriers in the major geographical regions in 2016 to the same data seven years earlier. Carriers from the Asia-Pacific region still carry the largest share of international and total traffic, but that share is steadily shrinking. Until recently, this was primarily due to the increasing traffic flown by carriers from the Middle East. But, in 2016, carriers from Europe saw their share begin to increase slightly, while cargo traffic for Middle East-based airlines was almost flat with 2015.

Part of the reason for this stalling of growth in the Middle East is the same as the reason it grew so rapidly in the first place: Geography. Carriers like Emirates and Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways took advantage of their location to become hubs for traffic moving between Europe and Asia. But in recent years, both AirBridgeCargo Airlines and Turkish Airlines have significantly increased their share of the Asia-Europe traffic. A quick look at the globe shows why. The total distance between Shanghai and Frankfurt with a stop in Dubai is 11,315 km. But if you make the stop in Istanbul instead, the distance falls to 9,925 km, and if the stop is in Moscow, the flight follows an almost perfect great circle and the total distance is just 8,895 km. Assuming that other things, such as service and base rates, are equal, the fuel saved by cutting almost 2,500 km becomes a compelling reason to move.

Another interesting way to sort the data is by airline type. There has been much talk in recent years about a shift of air cargo from main deck to belly, and some well-known carriers have either abandoned freighter operation or considerably reduced their freighter fleets. This has led some observers to conclude that freighters are rapidly becoming irrelevant, but the data simply do not support this.

IATA’s historical data consistently support the conclusion that there has been little change over the last seven years in the share of air cargo traffic carried on freighter aircraft vs the bellies of passenger aircraft. What has changed is the shares flown by airlines operating different business models. For example, while the chart does clearly show an increase in cargo traffic flown by belly-only carriers (particularly international traffic) over the last seven years, it also shows even larger increases for airlines that only operate freighters.

The one group that has seen its share fall over the past five years is the combination carriers (airlines that operate both passenger and freighter aircraft). But while it is true that carriers such as Air France-KLM, Lufthansa, EVA, and IAG Cargo are either cutting back or abandoning freighter operation, other carriers (Qatar, Etihad, and Turkish, for example) are adding freighters to their fleets.

Join us at the Cargo Facts Symposium in Miami, 2 – 4 October, to hear thoughts about the future from senior air freight executives from all regions, and all types of carriers. To register, or for more information, go to

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