In a ranking of the world’s busiest air freight hubs, Airports Council International (ACI) says cargo volumes for the top 10 airports increased by 3.0% overall in 2020, a year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced governments to shut down airports, enact border restrictions, and pause air travel in an attempt to curb the outbreak.
ACI says the top 10 airports represented around 28% (30.6 million metric tonnes) of the global volumes for 2020. It attributes the gain to increased demand for online consumer goods, pharmaceutical products, and personal protective equipment. With a +6.7% increase, Memphis International Airport surpassed Hong Kong International Airport and took over the #1 spot on the world’s list of busiest cargo hubs for the year.
Following Memphis was Anchorage, Alaska (with a 15% increase in cargo traffic over 2019’s numbers); Louisville, Ken. (4.6% increase); Los Angeles (6.6% growth); and Miami (2.2% increase). These numbers all reflect increases in the total metric tonnes of freight and mail that was loaded and unloaded at these cargo hubs.
“The demand for global air cargo has benefited from the consequences of the pandemic in volumes no one could’ve predicted,” Thomas Hendrick writes in Why is Global Air Cargo Demand on the Rise? “Following the COVID-19 epidemic, air cargo demand has been steadily increasing.”
Hendrick adds that the underlying economic climate remains favorable for air cargo. The manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) component of new export orders, which stood at 53.4 in March, reflects this.
“Manufacturing growth during the previous month is demonstrated by a score of above 50. During January and February 2021, this was centered in developed countries,” Hendricks writes. “Deliveries for manufactured goods are also increasing dramatically, which usually means more demand for air freight in an effort to cut down on shipping time.”
The Bright Spot
John McDonald, Senior Vice President, Air Freight at DB Schenker USA said, “While the coronavirus outbreak disrupted all corners of the economy in the Americas, the airline industry was among the hardest hit as air travel slowed to a crawl, especially in the early days of the pandemic. For carriers and airports, however, air cargo turned out to be a bright spot within an otherwise negative business forecast.”
By weight, U.S. airlines saw a significant year-over-year increase in cargo levels during the summer of 2020, according to Transport Topics. In 2021, the upswing continues as world economies recover and shippers look for new ways to get their goods delivered on time.
In its listing of the 100 busiest cargo airports in North America, Transport Topics says infrastructure projects now underway at several of those airports may help increase capacity in the coming years. Ranking second on the list of top airports, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska was recently awarded $21 million for infrastructure improvements through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s BUILD grant program.
“These funds will go toward constructing a 190,000 square-foot cold storage and climate-controlled air cargo facility,” Transport Topics reports. “Specifically, it will increase economic competitiveness by providing local cold storage options for Alaska’s $300 million seafood industry and will avoid cargo loss in perishable supply chains.”
Meeting International Demand
In its most recent air cargo report, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that the global air cargo markets continue to post strong growth. Total cargo volume for May 2021 was 9.4% above pre-COVID levels, IATA reports. “The pace of growth slowed slightly in May compared to April which saw demand increase 11.3% against pre-COVID-19 levels (April 2019),” IATA reports. “Notwithstanding, air cargo outperformed global goods trade for the fifth consecutive month.”
In May, North American carriers posted a 25.5% increase in international demand in May 2021 compared to May 2019. This was on par with April’s performance (25.4%) and the strongest of all regions. Underlying economic conditions and favorable supply chain dynamics remain supportive for air cargo carriers in North America. International capacity grew by 1.6% as compared to May 2019.
Latin American carriers reported a decline of 14% in international cargo volumes in May compared to the 2019 period. “This was the worst performance of all regions,” IATA reports, “but a significant improvement compared to the previous month, which saw a 32.3% drop in demand.”
Combined, North American carriers contributed 4.6 percentage points to the total 9.4% growth rate in global air cargo in May. “Airlines in all other regions except for Latin America also supported the growth,” IATA point out, noting that capacity remains constrained at 9.7% below that of May 2019 due to the ongoing grounding of passenger aircraft. “Seasonally adjusted capacity rose 0.8% month-on-month in May, the fourth consecutive month of improvement indicating that the capacity crunch is slowly unwinding.”