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Fueled by cargo

By Hpanchal on September 26, 2012

Last year was mostly a down year for cargo activity at airports around the world, according to Airports Council International. Most of the airports on its list of the 50 busiest cargo destinations in 2011 had experienced year-over-year cargo declines ranging from fractions of a percentage point (JFK, New Delhi) to more than 10 percent, in the case of Tokyo Narita. In the top 10, only Louisville saw year-over-year tonnage growth — even that was only 1 percentage point.

With all the declines and small increases experienced by the majority of the airports on the list, a few stood out. Of course, officials at Hong Kong International Airport deserve recognition for once again obtaining the top spot on the list, despite a 4.5-percent, year-over-year, drop in activity; HKIA overtook the perennial winner, Memphis International Airport, on 2011’s list. Airports in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East saw the largest increases in activity.

HKIA squeaked by Memphis this year, finishing at 3.97 million tonnes, compared to the U.S. airport’s 3.91 million tonnes. According to an airport spokesman, HKIA officials amassed this amount of cargo with the help of their three biggest cargo markets — Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asia. To corner a large market share on those routes, those at HKIA entered into partnerships between the carriers, the airport authority and the government, and made good use of HKIA’s access to multimodal transport.

In the first half of this year, cargo activity at the airport stayed mostly flat, which was a relatively good sign in this difficult economy. Although officials saw a 1.6-percent, year-over-year, decline in July, HKIA has seen a bit of a resurgence recently. Freight volumes rose 3 percent, year-over-year, to 328,000 tonnes in August. “We’ve started to see some positive growth in cargo throughput recently,” the spokesman says. “Although the cargo performance will still be affected by the eurozone crisis and the U.S. economy in the short term, we are confident in HKIA’s long-term air traffic demand.”

Moving forward, the spokesman sees a few key challenges for HKIA. The general sluggishness of the economy and the price of fuel is a perennial concern, but one issue specific to the airport is capacity. The spokesman cited estimates that by 2030, cargo volume at HKIA will reach 8.9 million tonnes. Currently, there’s not enough room for that type of expansion, he says. “To truly handle unconstrained demand up to 2030 and possibly beyond,” the spokesman says, “HKIA needs to build a third runway.”

The Chinese government has given its in-principle approval of adding a third runway to the airport, so the quest for more capacity is slowly moving forward. Next up, officials will conduct environmental impact studies, obtain necessary governmental approvals, and then actually build the runway. The spokesman estimates that project implementation is three years away. Tonnage should start to skyrocket early next year, with the opening of the HK$5.5 million Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal. According to the spokesman, the terminal will increase the airport’s capacity by 2.5 million tonnes. Other notable developments include Shenzen Donghai Airlines’ recent freighter service; Silk Way Airlines and SF Airlines will also both start freighter service this year.

South Korea’s Incheon Airport ranks fifth on the list of top cargo airports, and its tonnage numbers were good enough for third on the list of Asian airports. But it also experienced a drop in activity, year-over-year, in 2011.

An airport spokesman says Incheon retained its high ranking despite the decline because of strong international business. Incheon has remained the second-busiest international cargo destination for the past six years, the spokesman says, while seeing the international volume at competing airports steadily decline. Transshipment activity this year has helped recent tonnage figures.

“Transshipment cargo moderated the poor showing of export and import cargo by decreasing only 1.5 percent, compared to 2011,” the spokesman says. “Incheon Airport has strong points in its transshipment environment — such as a geographical benefit of connecting Asia and the Americas — as well as a fast and easy transshipment process.”

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