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The world's top 50 airports

By Hpanchal on August 25, 2011

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.

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Submitted by George on

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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