FedEx & Emirates top the cargo rankings in 2015

Emirates may have been the top international cargo carrier in 2015, but FedEx, with its huge US domestic total, was the top carrier overall.

Emirates may have been the top international cargo carrier in 2015, but FedEx, with its huge US domestic total, was the top carrier overall.

After years of steadily rising through the ranks, Emirates became the world’s top international cargo carrier in 2013, and that dominance has grown in the two years since. The full rankings of the top fifty carriers, including international, domestic, and total traffic, are shown in the chart at the bottom of this page (and we’ll have more tomorrow, in Part II), but first, some commentary…

Dubai-based Emirates leveraged the advantages of a favorable geographic location, a huge fleet, and a strong management focus on cargo, to rack up 12.32 billion revenue tonne kilometers of international cargo flown in 2015, well ahead of Cathay Pacific and the Lufthansa Group, which swapped the #2 and #3 positions from the previous year. The well-publicized cargo problems at Air France-KLM, the perennial top international cargo carrier until 2013, have made it seem like the Franco-Dutch carrier has all but given up on the cargo business, but it nonetheless reported 8.95 billion RTKs flown in 2015 – down from the previous year, but still well ahead of Korean Air, the fifth-busiest with 8.22 billion RTKs.

On the domestic side, the two big US-based integrators continue to dominate, with FedEx reporting 8.57 billion RTKs flown in the US alone – more than all but the top four carriers reported internationally. UPS, as usual, was next behind FedEx, reporting 5.41 billion RTKs – more than twice the 2.44 billion RTKs flown by China Southern Airlines, the leading non-express carrier in domestic traffic.

In addition to its large domestic traffic, FedEx also reported 7.28 billion RTKs of international traffic, and continued its long run as the world’s top total cargo carrier with 15.85 billion RTKs. Emirates was well back with 12.32 billion RTKs, followed by UPS, Cathay Pacific, and the Lufthansa Group. (And if Emirates is well back now, consider what the gap will be like in the future, with FedEx having swallowed TNT. Adding TNT’s traffic to FedEx’s in 2015 would give FedEx 17.15 billion RTKs – almost 40% more than Emirates, its closest competitor.)

The chart below 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 carriers worldwide. We say “best estimate” for several reasons.

  • First, there is no single source for 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 would almost certainly alter the rankings if they did report. Yangtze River Express (YRE), for example, operates three 747-400Fs, three 737-400Fs, and sixteen 737-300Fs. Including YRE would significantly boost the total of its majority owner, HNA Group. Other significant cargo carriers not reporting their traffic data are Turkey-based all-cargo carriers MNG Airlines and myCargo Airlines, European regional specialists ASL Group and West Atlantic, and Chinese express carrier SF Airlines.
  • Third, there is no easy way to show the huge cargo presence of DHL Express. DHL owns, or is a joint-venture partner in, several airlines, many of which do not report their traffic. On top of which, 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, DHL International, ABX Air, AeroLogic, Air Hong Kong, Polar Air Cargo, and Southern Air, and show it in the chart as “DHL Express.” This under-represents DHL’s total by a considerable margin (data for EAT Leipzig, for example, is unavailable), and also hides the non-DHL traffic carried by these airlines, particularly ABX, but at least provides a hint of the impact of the German integrator.
  • Fourth, it is not always clear whether cargo flown by carriers operating on an ACMI basis for other carriers has been reported by the lessor, the lessee, or both.

And finally, in presenting the data, we have chosen to show merged, or about-to-be-merged, carriers as single entities, and to include the traffic of subsidiary carriers with their parents. So Lufthansa, for example, includes not only Lufthansa Cargo, but also the cargo activities of SWISS, Austrian Airlines, and Germanwings. Other groups shown under a single name include:

  • Air France/KLM/Martinair
  • Cathay Pacific/Dragonair
  • AirBridgeCargo/Volga-Dnepr Airlines (as Volga-Dnepr Group)
  • Cargolux/Cargolux Italia
  • Avianca/Avianca Brasil
  • British Airways/Iberia/Aer Lingus (as IAG Group)
  • LAN/TAM (as LATAM Group)
  • China Southern/Xiamen Airlines/China Postal/Sichuan Airlines
  • Air China/Air Macau/Shandong Airlines/Shenzhen Airlines
  • China Eastern/Shanghai Airlines
  • Hainan Airlines/Hong Kong Airlines/Tianjin Airlines (as HNA Group)

Despite all the above caveats, and given that the top fifty airlines carry well over 90% of the world’s cargo traffic, we feel that the chart below provides a reasonably accurate picture of the air cargo scene in 2015.

Top 50 cargo carriers in 2015

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