The world’s top 50 airports

Growth — substantive and encouraging, but perhaps fleeting — is the overarching theme  of the Airports Council International’s ranking of the busiest cargo airports in 2010.

The top 10 airports in the survey averaged a nearly 19-percent increase in cargo tonnage when compared to 2009’s economically depressed results. In that same group of airports, four airports experienced a year-over-year rise of more than 20 percent; if the scope is expanded to the top 50, the number of airports jumps to 14.

Only one airport in the top 50 — Philadelphia International Airport — saw less tonnage in 2010 than it did in 2009. (For the full results, turn to page 40.)

ACI’s 2009 rankings showed that of the top 10 airports (the rankings changed a bit, but the players remained the same), only two had experienced tonnage increases when compared to 2008. Four of the airports saw declines of more than 10 percent.

What a difference two years, and a rebound from a deep recession, makes. Unfortunately, 2011’s final numbers may be muted as well; due to another round of global economic struggles, there may be some weaker numbers up ahead.

Officials at Hong Kong International Airport experienced an unprecedented year of cargo growth, taking the prize as busiest cargo airport in the world from Memphis International. The Hong Kong airport had been plenty busy before, and had actually generated the most tonnage out of any airport on international flights each year since 1996, but the overall push in the Asia-Pacific region toward domestic activity nudged the airport over the top.

“Last year was an exceptional year for air cargo growth, where there was virtually no trough period,” an HKIA spokesman says. “It was a result of the sudden recovery of the economy, urgent replenishment orders, and the emergence of a new wave of high-tech electronic commodities.” The spokesman noted that more than 70 percent of the cargo handlers see is in transit to or from the Pearl River Delta region of China.

Everyone at the airport is anxiously awaiting the impact of Cathay Pacific’s cargo terminal, which is set to open in 2013. Full capacity at the development is expected to be 2.4 million tonnes annually, pushing HKIA’s overall cargo terminal capacity to 7.4 million tonnes a year. A longer-term project is the midfield expansion plan, which will provide freighters with more parking space.

The development that will help shape the future of HKIA, however, isn’t even set. Officials are currently debating the construction of a third runway at the airport, which would require the reclamation of land currently underwater. The other option is to improve the existing structures, but this would put a cap on future expansion. “After reaching saturation, the airport would not be able to introduce new destinations or flights except for substituting existing flights,” the spokesman says.

The first few quarters of 2011 haven’t been so kind to HKIA, a trend that is reflected in almost all of the top airports. Cargo volumes declined 2.3 percent, year-over-year, in the first six months of 2011 due to the general slowdown in world economies and the Japanese crisis. Officials are convinced, however, that more prosperity is around the corner.

“Despite the current slowdown, the industry is cautiously optimistic of the future of air cargo in the latter part of the year, which is the usual peak time for air cargo,” the spokesman says.

Officials at PACTL, a cargo terminal at Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), have seen one of the biggest tonnage growth spurts among the top airports in the Asia-Pacific region. According to an official, the company has seen strong export numbers, but import numbers and domestic cargo throughput are two areas that have really taken off.

But with any growth, comes challenges. PACTL workers immediately point to Customs as one aspect that can be improved. More Customs officers, combined with a better risk-assessment strategy and an overall streamlined process, would help immensely, a spokesman says. He adds that transit procedures also need improvement. Common issues like available infrastructure to support increased activity and the problem of ever-changing security practices are mostly not a concern at PVG.

“Security is not such a big challenge, as there is a clear concept. Security is being taken very seriously in PVG, and this will be the case in the future, too,” he says.

This year will bring a bit more difficulty for PVG, it seems. According to the PACTL spokesman, the airport experienced 2.9-percent less cargo activity in the first half of 2011 than it did in the first six months of 2010. He can’t put his finger on what has caused this decrease, but suspects the poor global economy and China’s economic deflation policy played a part.

The only thing to do is to soldier forward and hope cargo returns. To that end, pilots will be able to land on a fourth runway at PVG in spring 2013; construction of a fifth runway is slated to finish in 2015. A new Customs-free trade zone was put into operation near the airport’s West Cargo City in July. The developments, paired with the emergence of domestic business, bode well for the future.

“We will see much more transit cargo in PVG as well as much more import and domestic cargo. We will see more African and Indian cargo — maybe carriers from these countries as well,” the spokesman predicts. “But we will see fewer charters, as they will move to the second-tier locations on the rise, like Chengdu, Chongqing and Dalian.”

Memphis International Airport still ranks near the top due to its presence as the home base of FedEx, and despite relinquishing the title last year to HKIA, the airport is experiencing growth and expansion. According to Larry Cox, the airport’s president and CEO, 2010’s rise in activity was due to increased international cargo flown through the FedEx Super Hub. The integrator recently opened up a new cargo ramp and what will be the first of five new air cargo buildings. This international-traffic bump is also convincing FedEx to purchase larger aircraft, he says.

Though Cox looks forward to strong international numbers, the domestic tonnage paints another picture. While activity, he says, has stabilized, “fuel costs and a weak economy in North America make future growth challenging.” Still, he expects an overall air cargo growth of 5 percent this year. FedEx’s new facilities and, possibly, new carriers will drive this uptick, he says.

“We are very bullish on our future, as Memphis is becoming widely known as America’s aerotropolis, where runway, road, rail and river merge,” he says.

One seeming anomaly on the report is Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), which is ranked 56th on the list. Officials at the airport saw a staggering 171.6 percent year-over-year increase in tonnage. No other result on the list even comes close to half of CVG’s results.

It turns out, however, that the number can easily be explained by the return of DHL. The main reason CVG’s year-over-year percentage is so big is that 2009’s numbers only reflected six months of DHL’s operations. But DHL did some growing in 2010 and is set to expand even more. This spring, construction began on a $22.5 million-dollar expansion of the DHL facilities, which is set to deliver sometime this month. This activity is also having an impact on 2011’s numbers; in the first six months of the year, tonnage rose 46 percent, year over year.

“DHL has been a great airport and community partner. Their return to CVG has increased jobs in the region and helped to decrease overall operating costs to all carriers at CVG,” says Barb Schempf, the airport’s director of public and government affairs.

In March, airport officials tasked an engineering group with completing a master plan study that will propose strategies to meet demand through 2035. The process has just started, but Schempf knows cargo will be a part of CVG’s future.

“Both in the short term and as part of the master plan study update, cargo plays a critical role in the operations at CVG,” she says. “We will continue to work with our cargo partners to identify and implement airfield and facility requirements necessary to meet, improve and grow their business at CVG and in the region.”

The busiest cargo airports in Europe are all within a small area, and this makes competing in the airfreight market a challenge says Anne Frisch, the operations director at Paris-Charles de Gaulle. It’s much easier for carriers to shop around to try to find the best deal. Less-established airports, she says, get marginalized.

“Existing airports face very strong competition to get their share of business on the basis of advantages that are hard to replicate,” she says.

Activity at Paris-Charles de Gaulle, which ranks sixth on the list, flourished in 2010. The airport is an important European hub for FedEx, Air France and Europe Airpost, and the majority of goods routed through the port were set on trade lanes to Asia and North America.

Paris-CDG officials are currently working to establish a group of cargo specialists. Frisch also points to recent parking-stand expansions that will provide the extra space needed for the new B747-8F.

While French cargo benefited from the global rebound, there are new economic challenges ahead. The current state of Europe’s debt troubles and rising gas prices are reflected in CDG’s second-quarter numbers for 2011. After a 3.9-percent, year-over-year tonnage increase in the first quarter, the market faltered.

“This last quarter’s mixed results are, in part, explained by the Japanese catastrophe in March 2011, but also by the current economic context in Europe and the U.S,” Frisch says. “We usually say that cargo reflects the world economy — and this would once again appear to be the case.”

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One thought on “The world’s top 50 airports

  1. I wonder why Africa especially Nigeria cannot act as a hub for cargo in Africa. I am currently working on getting an approval to establish a cargo airport in Nigeria. I would appreciate some form of technical expertise and advice on the feasibility and success factors. I am convinced it will be a good deal for anyone who is bold enough to embark on it. I would really appreciate your expert opinion on this.
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