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Delivering the goods


How did the world’s leading cargo gateways fare in 2020 and what are they expecting from the year ahead? Joe Bates reports.

In terms of volumes and payloads, air cargo fared much better than the passenger side of the business in 2020, and that seems likely to be repeated for most or all of this year as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc with people’s travel plans.

Indeed, while the combination of travel restrictions, quarantine rules, the fear of catching COVID-19 and reduced airline services are keeping passengers away from airport terminals, cargo volumes have rallied and demand for some shipments has never been higher.

Months of shop closures and being forced to stay at home, for example, has led to a boom in e-commerce and arguably companies like Amazon and Alibaba have never been so busy.

While aircraft continue to bring vital personal protection equipment (PPE), medical supplies and now vaccines to countries across the globe as the world ramps up to finally put itself in a position to win the war against COVID-19.

The upturn in these consignments, in addition to the continued need for more traditional cargos flown on freighters and in the belly-hold of passenger flights, means that some of the world’s biggest cargo hubs reported an upturn in volumes in 2020.

These included Memphis International Airport (MEM), which overtook Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) to reclaim the title of the world’s busiest cargo gateway by handling a record 4.61 million (+6.72%) tonnes of freight.

Other Top 10 cargo airports recording sizeable upturns in volumes were Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), Taipei Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which registered increases of 15%, 7.4% and 6.6% respectively.

While Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF), Miami International Airport (MIA) and Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) recorded a healthy upturn in volumes of 4.6%, 2.2% and 1.4% respectively during 2020.

In the case of Shanghai Pudong in China, last year’s slight increase to 3.68 million tonnes cemented its status as the third busiest cargo hub on the planet.

MEM’s return to the top spot after a decade of being ranked No.2 behind Hong Kong is in no small part down to it being home to the global hub of cargo giant FedEx, which accounted for the vast majority of all cargo shipments handled at the Tennessee gateway.

Chair of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority’s Board of Commissioners, Pace Cooper, said: “Our standing in the air cargo industry serves as a positive reminder of the importance of FedEx and e-commerce to the Mid-South’s economy.

“It also illustrates the crucial role cargo has served during the pandemic. We look forward to ACI’s final report on the top air cargo airports later this year. Regardless, FedEx is a global leader that we are deeply proud to call our own.”

Taipei Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) reveals that transhipment cargo, which accounts for 51% of all freight handled at the gateway, soared by 20% last year, reflecting the “noticeable performance of industries” in Chinese Taipei.

The increase was also helped by the sizeable cargo fleets of TPE’s two home carriers, China Airlines and Eva Air, which the airport notes prevented it from being “greatly challenged by the decline in passenger traffic”.

The USA (32%) and Mainland China (15%) traditionally account for the bulk of transhipments at TPE, and both enjoyed robust growth in 2020, with volumes rising by 25.2% and 8.5% respectively compared with 2019. The upturn, says TPE, reflected the strong demand for technology products made in Chinese Taipei and Asia, such as semiconductors and consumer electronics.

President and CEO of Taoyuan International Airport Corp, Jerry Dann, believes that the airport’s performance in 2020 showed the world how TPE was able to take maximum advantage of its key advantages – its location, route network and transportation facilities.

Thinking about the future, he says: “Now, in pursuit of excellence, TPE is following the Taoyuan International Airport Conceptual Plan, approved by the government in early 2021, to arrange the new cargo park and the second Free Trade Zone, upgrading the cargo industry to the next level by improving efficiency and implementing innovative technologies.”

Fifth placed Louisville Muhammed Ali International Airport enjoyed its best ever year for cargo volumes, buoyed by a significant rise in goods handled by UPS, which has its global air hub (UPS Worldport) based at the Kentucky gateway. Louisville Regional Airport Authority’s executive director, Dan Mann, described 2020 as a good year for the airport and its key cargo contributor, UPS, which accounted for the bulk of the 2.9 million tonnes of cargo handled at SDF.

Mann enthused: “We have a strong relationship with UPS and are dedicated to ensuring our facilities, including our airfield, are prepared to handle their current and future growth as cargo operations increase year after year. Even though 2020 was a challenging year for the aviation industry, SDF remained resilient. We are optimistic that as the US moves to recovery this increase in cargo operations will continue to trend upwards.”

Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) has acknowledged that freight was a bright spot for LAX in 2020, officially announcing that the gateway handled 2.2 million tonnes of cargo during the year.

It says that LAX – one of the US’s busiest cargo airports for trade volumes with Asian markets – observed a gradual rise in cargo throughout 2020, experiencing significant increases in certain shipments, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), which skyrocketed by more than 20,000%.

Reflecting on the year, LAWA notes that some airlines converted their passenger aircraft cabins to carry cargo, and LAX granted more than 100 special permits for one-time operations of cargo, charter and humanitarian flight operations.

In December, FedEx Flight 900 arrived at LAX with one of the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines to reach Los Angeles. LAX was also the No.4 airport in the US for total cargo, with more than $95.5 billion in total cargo operations in 2020.

LAWA CEO, Justin Erbacci, told Airport World: “LAX plays an important role in facilitating global trade, and our cargo numbers from 2020 highlight that position, solidifying our place as a top-ranked national and global airport for cargo.

“Last year, LAX was a key hub for personal protective equipment, helping to get these critical items to people around the globe, and in the past few months, has become an important stop for vaccines en route to people throughout Southern California.

“Together with our partners in the aviation and logistics industries, Los Angeles International Airport will continue moving critical cargo as safely and efficiently as possible.”

You can read more about Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), which consolidated its Top 10 ranking courtesy of the 3.1 million tonnes (+15%) of freight to pass through its facilities in 2020, on page 36 of this issue.

Elsewhere in the US, Miami International Airport set a new record for cargo volumes in 2020 when it handled 2.1 million tonnes of freight – 57,382 more than its total in 2019.

It notes that MIA “finished the year exceptionally strong” enjoying its busiest ever months when it handled an average of 210,000 tons in October, November and December.

The Florida gateway, located eight miles north west of downtown Miami, also welcomed a record 59,000 cargo-only flights in 2020.

MIA, the busiest airport in the US for international freight and perishable products, states that it continued to be a global hub for essential supplies and e-commerce throughout the pandemic, and believes that its pharma expertise – it was the first airport in the Western Hemisphere and only the second in the world to be designated a pharmaceutical freight hub by IATA in 2015 – means that it is uniquely positioned to be a leading hub for COVID-19 vaccines.

“Our record-setting year would not have been possible without the strong partnership we share with each and every airline, federal agency and logistics provider that adapted and maintained their services throughout the pandemic,” enthused MIA director and CEO, Lester Sola.

“We are deeply grateful for their ongoing support and look forward to reaching even greater heights together in 2021 as we facilitate more essential trade and commerce across our region and the globe.”

ACI World’s preliminary Cargo Top 10 for 2020 also shows that Incheon International Airport enjoyed a positive year for freight volumes, with its annual tonnage numbers rising by 2.1% to 2.82 million.

Other airports, however, didn’t do quite so well as the reduction in passenger flights and the loss of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cargo they accommodate onboard each year meant that four of the Top 10 busiest cargo airports in 2019 experienced a downturn in volumes last year.

Former undisputed cargo king Hong Kong, for example, saw its cargo throughput dip 7.1% to 4.46 million tonnes and fellow 2019 Top 10 members Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Qatar, Dubai International Airport (DXB) in the UAE and Tokyo Narita (NRT) in Japan reported annual downturns of 1.8%, 26.3% and 4.4% respectively. The declines at DXB and NRT actually cost them their place in the Top 10 for 2020 as they have been replaced by MIA and LAX.

Despite the drop, the Airport Authority of Hong Kong (AAHK) states that its cargo throughput “remained relatively stable” in 2020, and is quick to point out that HKG recorded an 18% rise in all-cargo flights during the year. It also ended 2020 strongly with a monthly increase in cargo imports and exports of 18% and 8% respectively in December.

ACI’s preliminary data for 2020 reveals that the world’s airports handled around 109 million tonnes of freight last year – 8.9% less than in 2019.

Talking about the importance of cargo, ACI World director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, noted: “From time-sensitive vaccine shipments to fresh produce, air cargo is a vital – and growing – part of the aviation ecosystem.

“It supports global trade and local economic development while encouraging diversified airport operations and building long-term capacity.

“Now, during the pandemic, airports are playing an even more important role, supporting cargo operations and providing goods and services for the health of the people and communities we serve.

“Air cargo was less impacted than passenger traffic last year, with volumes in the top 10 airports increasing by 3%. This is a good sign, but airport operators must continue to work closely with their cargo stakeholders on their recovery plans, to enable more capacity as they navigate the crisis together.

“The preliminary data overall shows that the impact remains uneven with different regions experiencing different challenges and requiring different policy decisions and support from governments.”

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global demand measured by cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs) fell by 10.6% in 2020, while global capacity in available cargo tonne-kilometres (ACTKs) plummeted by 24% compared to 2019.

Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism as IATA revealed that global cargo demand returned to pre-COVID levels for the first time in a year when CTKs in January 2021 were 1.1% above those reported
in January 2019.

And it recently stated that it expects demand for cargo to grow by 13.1% over 2020, with volumes expected to reach 63.1 million tonnes in 2021.

According to the Air Transport Action Group’s latest Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders report, in a normal year, the world’s airlines transport around 35% of global trade by value but less than 1% of world trade by volume. That is equivalent to $6.5 trillion worth of goods annually or $18 billion worth of goods every day.

It waits to be seen how long it will take for cargo volumes to return to and eventually surpass those kind of levels, although the signs are good that the bounce back has already started.

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