China is a land characterized by growth. In 2010, the Asian nation overtook Japan as the second-largest economic powerhouse in the world, propelled by 10-percent annual gains in GDP and a booming manufacturing sector. China’s been so successful, in fact, that some experts predict it will usurp the U.S.’s title as the global economic leader by 2020.
This economic advancement is already seen in the airfreight industry. Last year, Hong Kong International Airport surpassed Memphis International Airport as the world’s busiest cargo airport, ending Memphis’ 18-year reign.
HKIA, which transported 4.16 million tonnes in 2010, experienced a year-over-year surge of 23.2 percent; Memphis only posted 5.9-percent, year-over-year, growth. Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) also achieved considerable success in 2010, handling 3.2 million tonnes — a 27 percent jump from 2009.
Experts attribute much of this growth to the Far East region’s development as the commercial epicenter of Asia. This year hasn’t been as lucrative for PVG or HKIA, however, with the airports reporting mid-year cargo drops of 2.9 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.
Regional airlines have also seen a number of challenges. Although International Air Transport Association officials project that Asia-Pacific carriers — of which China has the biggest stake — will return a $2.5 billion profit this year, it’s $5.5 billion less than they took home last year.
“While this is the largest absolute profit, the region has also seen the most dramatic downturn compared to 2010,” an IATA spokeswoman says. “The weakness of air cargo markets is disproportionately affecting airlines from this region, owing to the larger share of cargo in airline revenues.” She attributes much of the region’s collapse to the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which ravaged supply chains and freight markets.
At more than 9.59 million square kilometers, China is only slightly smaller than the U.S., but features some of the top manufacturing hubs in the world. These production facilities have spread from manufacturing mainstays, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, to inland China.
“Manufacturing used to be mainly focused in the Pearl River Delta and Yangtse River Delta; it’s now dispersing over many cities in China with the move west being the most-noted phenomenon,” says James Woodrow, general manager of cargo sales and marketing at Cathay Pacific.
Credit China’s “Go West” campaign with this change. Launched in 2000, this program sought to attract foreign investment and industrialize the nation’s underdeveloped western region. The rise of Chengdu and Chongqing has been attributed to the initiative, with both cities emerging as electronics and IT hotspots. Chongqing has also distinguished itself as a key player in the automotive sector, boasting numerous production facilities for motorcycles and machinery.
In July, UPS gave the region another boost with the launch of express service to Chengdu. With foreign trade in this city surging to $32.78 billion last year — a 36-percent hike from 2009 — UPS International President Dan Brutto says the decision to address Chengdu’s growth was an easy one.
“China’s ‘Go West’ program is making it very attractive for companies to move production facilities to inland cities like Chengdu, and we believe the area is poised for accelerated growth in express shipping,” Brutto explains.
Still, some logistics experts have questioned whether Western China’s airfreight operations are equipped to handle such growth. Wenjun Li, head of airfreight at DHL Global Forwarding China, thinks not.
“The imbalance of airfreight-handling capabilities in different areas of China is one of the biggest challenges,” he says. “With more and more imported, high-tech products moving into inland China, airfreight gateways in West China, such as Chongqing, Chengdu and Zhengzhou, will face capacity constraints and a shortage of ground-handlers.”
PVG has the opposite problem, Li asserts. Too much freighter capacity, coupled with sluggish markets out of Europe and the U.S., has squeezed airlines’ profits in Shanghai. It has been such a problem, in fact, that Cathay Pacific — the region’s largest carrier — has suspended one-quarter of its freight routes to Europe.
“Consumer confidence has a big effect on airfreight export volumes from China,” Woodrow says. “The big issue facing the Shanghai market is the current imbalance between supply and demand, with Europe and the U.S. suffering from significant slowdowns that are expected to continue.”
Fortunately, Scott Aubuchon, director of international airfreight marketing at UPS, doesn’t think it’s an insurmountable problem. To him, it’s simply a matter of carriers improvising and increasing frequencies to areas with rising cargo volumes, such as Western China.
“One of the beautiful things about airfreight is that if there’s business to be picked up, carriers will very quickly move assets to meet demand,” Aubuchon says. “Carriers are more than willing to move aircraft to where there is freight to be lifted.”
It’s a trend that was just seen as Cathay Pacific launched twice-weekly freight service to Chengdu on October 12. And, this month, the flag carrier of Hong Kong will increase its number of weekly cargo flights to Chongqing to four. What’s more, Woodrow says, these routes will likely rise in frequency over the next 12 months.
In addition to the movement west, increasing wealth among China’s residents is also affecting airfreight operations. The stereotype buttonholing China into the role of the world’s factory has slowly been turned on its head, as China’s middle class continues to emerge. “In the future, China won’t just be an export-driven market — it will become an import and export market,” Aubuchon says.
Handel Jones, CEO of International Business Strategies and author of “Chinamerica: The Uneasy Partnership that Will Change the World” (McGraw-Hill, 2010), concurs. As China’s middle class continues to grow, consumption patterns will change, Jones says. One key manifestation of this will be the increase of luxury goods being imported into Southeast Asia, he envisions.
This projection is echoed by the global management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co. According to a recent report, China will overtake Japan as the No. 1 luxury market in the world by 2015. In fact, McKinsey & Co. analysts found, luxury sales in China reached $12 billion last year; that number will surge to $27 billion in the next four years, they project.
“This will continue to drive import volumes into the many growing cities throughout China as the middle class increases year by year,” Woodrow says.
Carriers are also responding to this anticipated growth by renovating their fleets. Cathay Pacific, for instance, recently agreed to purchase eight B777 freighters — a procurement aviation officials believe will boost the region’s cargo operations tremendously. Woodrow says much of the decision centered on the aircraft’s fuel efficiency. “Fuel remains Cathay Cargo’s single biggest cost,” he says. “In an era of expected high fuel costs, an efficient, duel-engine freighter has great economic appeal.”
Boosting China’s infrastructure to prepare for the growth is another sound investment, numerous experts say. Jones, for one, thinks China needs to build a FedEx equivalent, albeit one with a lower cost structure. It’s all about streamlining operations, he explains. “China will need to continue to expand its infrastructure to reduce costs and make logistics more efficient,” Jones says. After all, he maintains, “air transportation is fast and clean, but the support infrastructure has to be efficient.”
DHL’s Li agrees that China still has infrastructural challenges, but he believes that the problems are clustered in certain regions. Airports in inland and Western China, for instance, need to develop their handling capabilities, he says. Standardization and implementation of technological initiatives, such as e-freight, are other areas for improvement. “There isn’t a nationwide operational standard when resources, time and costs need to comply with local policies and regulations,” Li says.
After all, if China is expected to lead the global economy by 2020, it needs to implement trade policies that sustain growth. Not that Aubuchon is too concerned about operational barriers to success. “[Chinese authorities] are very good at investing in infrastructural improvements to ensure that there’s no bottleneck to commerce,” he says.
As import and exports levels in China continue to grow, investment is a good thing, indeed.