Air Cargo is Growing – and Concentrating – at the Most Impactful Airports

A couple months ago, a collection of reference tables was uploaded in an aiREFORM Post. One of those tables was about air cargo, and deserves a closer look.

Using FAA’s data, the 107 ‘busiest’ air cargo airports were presented, in rank order and showing the annual cargo tonnage. Not just that, but also showing annual trends (change from previous year), peak years, and percent below peak year. A scrollable PDF of the 11-pg table is added at the bottom of this Post.

So, what does all this data suggest is happening in aviation? Here are a few summary points, plus some suggestions of what should be researched further:

  • as a bit of background, readers should understand that the two largest air cargo operators are FedEx (with a main hub at KMEM, ranked #1), and UPS (with a main cargo hub at KSDF, ranked #3).
  • the overall U.S. air cargo market is flat, as summarized at the bottom of page 11 of the table; i.e., total tonnage for these 107 main air cargo airports was 151B tons in 2003, and only surpassed that in 2016 (to 155B tons). This is an average annual change of 0.2% per year, well below population growth.
  • there is substantial consolidation happening (we see this in passenger airlines as well as banking, groceries, and all industries, so this is no surprise). Notice the distribution of PEAK years. The higher the ranking within the 107 cargo airports, the more likely 2016 was their peak cargo tonnage. Likewise, look closely at the bottom of the ranked list of 107 airports, where you will find the vast majority of these airports are steeply declining (see especially the average annual rate of change in the far right column).
  • looking at the biggest annual changes, nearly all of these are happening at major hubs with large expansions (such as KSEA, with the addition of Delta’s new hub in 2012), or at former major hubs abandoned by passenger airlines and now desperately accommodating air cargo development (see especially the Ohio airports on this list, such as KCVG).
  • it appears that passenger airlines are altering their business models to haul more air cargo. Aircraft engine power has grown tremendously, plus FAA continues to fund runway expansions. The total weight capacity for newer jets is thus likely growing faster than passenger demand. As such, it behooves the airlines to load up with extra weight, collecting revenues on air freight. If every seat on a flight is filled, air cargo is cut to a minimum; but, if 50% of seats are empty, an enormous extra loading of air cargo is accommodated.
  • if airlines are hauling more/extra air cargo (plausibly, to feed stock at ‘fulfillment centers’?), those arrivals will need much more time at the gate, for trucks to haul off the excess cargo. This will cascade into more delays with arrivals having to wait until their gate becomes accessible. At KSEA, much of the proposed development on the south end may in fact be NOT for passenger airline servicing but for the unloading of excess cargo from the belly of those aircraft.
  • ponder this: the tonnage statistic may not reflect actual air cargo demand. That is, this statistic will inflate, if/when more tonnage is routed in the belly of air carriers. So, for example, let’s say Delta adds excess passenger capacity at KSEA, and has a hard time filling all the excess seats; they can still profit by hauling lots more belly-cargo. But, that cargo will weave through Delta’s hub system, not going direct to its final destination but instead causing tonnage to grow tremendously on the main Delta hub routes such as KATL-KSEA, KLAX-KSEA, and KMSP-KSEA.

Those of us who are concerned about current impact trends near major hub airports can and should do two things, in terms of how we consume air miles:

  1. we should fly as little as possible – even not at all; and
  2. we should minimize as much as possible our use of air freight, by avoiding hyper-consumer programs such as Amazon Prime.
Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.