The world’s top 50 cargo carriers of 2017

FedEx held its spot as the #1 cargo carrier in domestic and total freight and mail traffic in 2017.

Last year when we analyzed the top 50 cargo carriers of 2016, we noted FedEx’s runaway cargo traffic growth through its acquisition of TNT, which further drove a wedge between FedEx and the number two contender for highest total cargo traffic, Emirates.

However, a year can make quite a difference, and what an eventful year 2017 was for FedEx. Its TNT Express operations took a substantial hit in June of last year thanks to the NotPetya cyberattack, and not to be outdone, Mother Nature dealt the US Gulf coast a blow with Hurricane Harvey, which impacted FedEx’s operations during the first quarter of its fiscal year 2018, ended 31 August 2017. Along with a large hit to its operating income from those disasters during the quarter, package volumes fell in the US Overnight Box and US Overnight Envelope segments. Overall during 2017, FedEx’s total cargo traffic in revenue tonne kilometers (RTKs) declined by just under 1% compared to its total 2016 traffic. However, considering the outstanding year overall for air cargo, that decline was enough to narrow the gap between FedEx and Emirates to 26.3%.

The story is different on the international side, where once again Emirates is the global leader for air cargo traffic. The Dubai-based carrier nabbed its spot as the world’s top international cargo carrier in 2013 and has held its position there ever since, thanks to its advantageous geographic position, large fleet of freighter and passenger aircraft, and its focus on air cargo that contributed to 3.8% year-over-year growth to 12.98 billion RTKs of international cargo flown during 2017. However, the three-time runner-up, Cathay Pacific, gained on Emirates in international cargo traffic during the year, narrowing from a difference of 15.8% in 2016 to only 10.9% for 2017. In a perhaps unsurprising move from its previous position at #4 given the importance of air cargo in Qatar after the blockade there by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar Airways increased its y-o-y international cargo traffic by an impressive 20.0% and moved into the #3 spot for 2017, displacing Lufthansa from its usual spot. DHL Express also moved ahead of the Lufthansa Group into the #4 spot, up one position from last year’s ranking, while Lufthansa Group rounded out the top five. It is worth noting that while Lufthansa fell in the rankings, it still posted year-over-year gains in international cargo traffic.

There were no major surprises on the domestic side during 2017, as the two major US-based integrators continued to hold their top spots. FedEx’s domestic cargo traffic was flat y-o-y at 8.75 billion RTKs flown. UPS held its usual second-place spot, also reporting mostly flat y-o-y traffic at 5.68 billion RTKs. However, while the third-place domestic cargo carrier was once again China Southern Airlines (the top non-express carrier in domestic traffic), China Southern more than doubled its domestic RTKs, to 4.51 billion, thanks to the inclusion of China Postal Airlines within the group’s traffic figures in 2017. Air China retained its spot from last year at #4 in domestic traffic, reporting a 1.3% y-o-y increase in traffic to 1.96 billion RTKs. Rounding out the top five this year is China Eastern Airlines, which increased its cargo traffic by 6.5% y-o-y to 1.11 billion RTKs, displacing DHL Express.

As mentioned earlier, FedEx led in total cargo traffic for 2017 with 16.91 billion RTKs flown. Emirates stood well below FedEx, but higher than its 2016 total, at 12.98 billion RTKs flown, and UPS Airlines, Cathay Pacific Group, and DHL Express Group made up the rest of the top five. Elsewhere in the top ten list, we find mostly the same carriers that appeared last year, including Qatar Airways, Lufthansa Group, Air France-KLM, and Korean Air.

One impressive new entry within 2017’s top ten carriers is China Southern Airlines, which climbed from #13 for 2016 to #8 for 2017, displacing Cargolux despite the Luxembourg-based all-cargo carrier’s 13.8% y-o-y increase in cargo traffic. Considering the significant y-o-y gains across the industry in 2017, even those top carriers reporting substantial increases in traffic faced heavy competition from other carriers. Year-over-year, the top ten carriers for 2017 recorded an increase of 7.3% in total air cargo traffic, compared to the top ten carriers of 2016.

The chart at the bottom of the page shows our best estimate of the international, domestic, and total cargo traffic (including mail, and both scheduled and charter freight) flown by the top fifty carrier groups worldwide. We say “best estimate” for several reasons.

First, there is no single source for complete and accurate cargo traffic data. Different sources will often report different totals for the same carrier, and carriers do not always report their traffic the same way. Our main sources were reports compiled and issued by IATA and the US Department of Transportation, as well as statistics published by the carriers themselves.

Second, not all carriers report their traffic. Many of these non-reporting carriers are relatively insignificant, but some – European specialists ASL Group and West Atlantic, as well as MNG Airlines and Air Atlanta Icelandic – would almost certainly alter the rankings if they did report.

Third, as in our other global analyses, there is no easy (or accurate) way to show the huge cargo presence of DHL Express. DHL owns, or is a joint-venture partner in, several airlines, some of which do not report their traffic. To further complicate matters, unlike FedEx and UPS, DHL moves a significant percentage of its shipments using purchased or leased space on non-affiliated carriers worldwide. For this report, we have added up the traffic flown by DHL Air, EAT Leipzig, DHL International, ABX Air, AeroLogic, Air Hong Kong, Blue Dart Aviation, Polar Air Cargo, and Southern Air, and show it in the chart as “DHL Express.” This figure almost certainly under-represents DHL’s total, but at least gives a sense of just how much air cargo the German express company moves.

In examining the data, we have chosen to consider all traffic – freight and mail, flown in scheduled and charter operation. Many “top cargo carrier” lists include only scheduled freight traffic, but without including charter operation, we would miss evaluating a significant portion of overall air cargo traffic. We also believe that including mail along with freight gives a much better picture of the overall industry.

We also list merged carriers, as well as those about to be merged, as single entities, and include the traffic of subsidiary carriers with their parents. So, for example, Volga-Dnepr Group includes both AirBridgeCargo and Volga-Dnepr Airlines, while Air France-KLM includes cargo traffic from Air France, KLM, and Martinair. The groups shown under a single name in the charts include:

  • AirBridgeCargo/Volga-Dnepr Airlines (as Volga-Dnepr Group)
  • Air China/Shandong Airlines/Shenzhen Airlines
  • Air France/KLM/Martinair
  • Avianca/Avianca Brasil
  • British Airways/Iberia/Iberia Express/Aer Lingus (as International Airlines Group)
  • Cargolux/Cargolux Italia
  • Cathay Pacific/Cathay Dragon
  • China Cargo Airlines/China Eastern Airlines/Shanghai Airlines (as China Eastern Airlines)
  • China Southern/Xiamen Airlines/China Postal Airlines/Sichuan Airlines
  • Hainan Airlines/Hong Kong Airlines/Tianjin Airlines/Aigle Azur/Suparna (as HNA Group)
  • LATAM Airlines/LATAM Brasil/LATAM Paraguay (as LATAM Group)
  • Lufthansa/SWISS/Austrian/Brussels Airlines (as Lufthansa Group)

Despite the few cautionary notes above (and some concerns expressed by carriers over the exclusion of certain cargo traffic from the IATA data), and given that the top fifty airlines carry about 96% of the world’s cargo traffic, we feel that the chart below provides a reasonably accurate picture of air cargo traffic in 2017.


Get Latest Issue