Don’t Fence Me In: Asia’s airports keep expanding, as regional competition intensifies

Three of the world’s top-five airports, measured by annual cargo throughput, are in Asia – and unlike airports in Europe and North America, chronic capacity shortages are unlikely to be an issue in the near future. Though there will eventually come a point at which Asia’s busiest cargo hubs, Hong Kong (HKG), Shanghai Pudong (PVG) and Seoul Incheon (ICN), will need to add runways and expand cargo aprons to sufficiently accommodate surging demand for air cargo, the airports have not yet reached that point.

Rather than fret over reaching theoretical capacity limits, Asia’s top cargo airports are instead increasingly mindful of encroaching competition in the region. Accordingly, investments in infrastructure have centered around keeping runways open for new business.

Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) has long been the nexus of air cargo flows between Asia and the rest of the world – a function of the city-state’s location in the Pearl River Delta and favorable business policies. Now that the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is fully operational, however, Hong Kong is less isolated. The 55-kilometer span cuts travel times between Hong Kong and Zhuhai from 4 hours to 45 minutes.

The airport’s plan to keep its status as the world’s dominant hub centers on a massive reclamation project that will convert what was previously ocean, into usable land that will be developed into a third runway. In a project statement, Carrie Lam, CEO, Hong Kong, said, HKG is “among our most important infrastructure. With the construction of the Three-Runway System (3RS), HKG will help ensure that Hong Kong will continue to be one of the world’s major aviation hubs.” As part of the 3RS project, the airport will also add 57 aircraft parking positions. By 2030, HKG’s annual cargo throughput could rise from 2017’s total of 5 million tonnes to 9 million tonnes.

Just 1,235 kilometers to the north sits Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), where a similar project is underway to connect the two existing terminals with a massive H-shaped satellite terminal. Slated for completion in 2019, the project will add 120 additional parking stands, and boost throughput capacity to 4.26 million tonnes per annum. Like Hong Kong, Shanghai finds itself with a number of new airports vying for its cargo volumes – from nearby hubs, such as Ningbo (NGB), Wuxi (WUX) and Nantong (NTG) – to growing cargo airports in Central China, like Xi’an (XIY) and Zhengzhou (CGO).

Unchallenged for dominance as an international cargo hub in its own country, Seoul’s Incheon Airport’s (ICN) biggest threat happens to be growing hubs in Eastern China. In a move similar to those of Shanghai and Hong Kong, Incheon continues to increase its footprint. Earlier this year, the airport opened a second terminal, which added hardstand parking for 13 widebody freighters and increased throughput capacity by 500,000 tonnes. A fourth phase of construction, which is slated for completion in 2023 will boost annual cargo throughput capacity to 6.3 million tonnes through the addition of a fourth runway and 13 on-ramp parking spaces.

As ICN expands, new warehousing space is being developed in parallel at its LogiSpark. Apart from expanding the airport’s footprint, Incheon also strives to boost cargo throughput with innovations that aim to improve the efficiency of logistics process, such as a pallet-sharing system, and the addition of a multi-tenant cool cargo center.

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