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Air cargo soars but trade war threat looms large

Air freight volumes at the 20 busiest airports worldwide grew 6.8 percent last year, but the “specter of uncertainty regarding trade policy among major economies” could dampen growth in 2018, according to ACI Director General Angela Gittens.


Air cargo volumes at the 20 busiest airports in the world soared 6.8 percent to a combined 51 million metric tons in 2017, according to the latest figures from trade association Airports Council International.

Those 20 airports, which account for 43 percent of all global air cargo volumes, benefitted from a broad-based strengthening of the world economy, building inventories and increased export orders.

These factors were more than enough to offset “uncertainty regarding the threat of trade wars and the growth of protectionist sentiments across the world,” ACI said.

The council also noted the positive effect of surging e-commerce volumes on global air freight demand, as well as some short-term switching from ocean to air in 2016 and 2017 that resulted from widespread carrier consolidation.

In the United States, a growing economy, increases in global industrial production, and a strong dollar boosted inbound air cargo demand, with volumes at hubs like Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD) growing 12.6 percent last year. ORD also benefitted from international trade with China and other Asian countries, boosting its international freight volumes 12.2 percent in 2017.

The world’s largest air cargo hub, however, continued to be Hong Kong, which saw volumes grow 9.4 percent to more than 5 million metric tons for the year, followed by Memphis (up 0.3 percent to 4.3 million metric tons), Shanghai (up 11.2 percent to 13.8 million metric tons) and Incheon, Korea (up 7.6 percent to 2.9 million tons).

Memphis benefits from being the home to FedEx Express’ global hub, but the airport will likely be getting some stiff competition from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), which saw air cargo volumes surge 27.3 percent last year and will house Amazon’s air cargo facilities scheduled to begin operations in 2020.

On a regional basis, combined air cargo volumes in Asia-Pacific rose 11.4 percent, while North American airports saw a 10.3 percent boost from the previous year.

“The surge in cargo volumes and passenger numbers across many of the world’s airports is testament to heightened business and consumer confidence, at least in the short term,” ACI World Director General Angela Gittens said in a statement. “The world’s airports continue to be a vital link in the economic multiplier effect that aviation provides and the role it plays as an enabler for global commerce is growing.

“The universal access to online retail and e-commerce platforms represents a competitive pressure to the traditional brick and mortar retail shops in certain markets but the huge growth in e-commerce has fueled the air cargo side of the airport business,” she added. “This has resulted in increased global activity, especially in major markets such as China and the U.S.”

Gittens warned, however, that “the specter of uncertainty regarding trade policy among major economies comes at a time when global commerce and our industry has recently thrived.

The transpacific link, for instance, is an important ingredient in boosting international passenger traffic and international freight volumes. Connecting people, business and places still remains paramount to the aviation sector despite the recent threats of a step backward in market liberalization in some major economies.”

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