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The world's busiest airports

March 09, 2006 14:08 IST

Airports handle passengers and yes, freight. Gobs and bobs of freight.

Everything from frozen partridges (and fresh pear trees) to multi-ton steam generators, an Orca or 700,000 bottles of wine by UPS, and volumes of cheese, yogurt and electronic products from faraway Finland (or their outsourced facilities in China or Mexico), France, Greece, Taiwan and, of course, China.

The airports worldwide handle passengers and cargo in ever-larger quantities. Most who know about FedEx (nyse: FDX would assume their Memphis, Tenn., hub would rank high in cargo handling. It does. It is the highest in the world in the amount of cargo handled. And if anyone wonders why Louisville, K.Y. is No.11 in the world, they should recall it is the main air hub for UPS, whose other hubs also rank high, such as Dallas (No.25 in the world).

One of the big issues in the airline world is hubs and where they should be located. Many cities would like their airport to have a cargo hub, along with the jobs and income derived from such a facility.

Making such a choice involves a host of issues. Many companies would like to choose a hub position that is in a reasonable location and the shortest distance to its multiple markets. The preferences of cities do not always match the needs of carriers or manufacturers or retailing establishments.

"There are many metrics involved in choosing a place for a hub," says Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association. "The first involves availability. Many airports are over-taxed like Los Angeles. Other cities are, on the other hand, begging for cargo business."

In the Midwest, for instance, Chicago may be out of the question, so UPS chose Rockford as a hub. Other metrics involve the economics of local or regional costs, or positioning for traffic with China. Not all cities find the idea of cargo planes with all-night landings and takeoffs appealing. This comes down to "nimby" or "not in my back yard."

It is interesting to see those airports that rank high in both passengers and freight: Los Angeles, Paris' Charles De Gaulle and Frankfort. And also interesting to see those that rank high in one and low in another category: Atlanta is No.1 in passengers but a mere No.23 in freight. Dallas-Fort Worth is No.6 in passengers and only No.25 in freight. London's Heathrow is No.3 in passengers and does not make the top 30 in freight. Chicago's O'Hare that tries most passengers' patience is No.2 in passengers and just No.15 in freight.

It is worth noting that five out of 12 of the largest passenger handling airports are in the U.S. While in the cargo category, six of the top 12 are U.S.-based. The biggest surprise is the status of Anchorage, Alaska. It's the fourth largest cargo airport. The reason is a single word: China. The China air cargo trade is booming, and Anchorage has become a hub for many of the integrated express carriers like UPS and FedEx.

Airports were not originally designed for cargo, nor were the planes that landed at them. The planes at first had side loading that's awkward at best and still is. Many freight carriers today have noses that open. These can swallow all the offering of a full forklift, while disgorging the same cargo at the other end with dispatch.

The International Air Transport Association sees the growth between 2005 and 2009 hovering around 6% worldwide with slightly more in Asia, with less in Latin America and Africa. Since the placement of hubs is already difficult, times ahead may call for far more funding. Planning and execution help make the world's supply chain run smoothly.

The 12 largest cargo airports in the world are:

Airport Metric tons handled (2004)

  • 1. Memphis ---- 3,554,575
  • 2. Hong Kong ---- 3,119,008
  • 3. Tokyo (Narita) ---- 2,375,133
  • 4. Anchorage ---- 2,252,911
  • 5. Seoul ---- 2,133,444
  • 6. Los Angeles Inter. ---- 1,913,676
  • 7. Paris (Charles De Gaulle) ---- 1,876,980
  • 8. Frankfurt ---- 1,838,894
  • 9. Singapore ---- 1,795,646
  • 10. Miami ---- 1,778,902
  • 11. Louisville ---- 1,739,492
  • 12. New York (JFK) ---- 1,706,468

The 12 largest passenger traffic airports
(passengers in 2004; source: Airports Council International)

Airport Annual passenger traffic

  • 1. Atlanta (Hartsfield-Jackson) ---- 83,578,906
  • 2. Chicago (O'Hare) ---- 75,373,888
  • 3. London (Heathrow) ---- 67,343,960
  • 4. Tokyo (Haneda) ---- 62,320,968
  • 5. Los Angeles International ---- 60,710,830
  • 6. Dallas-Forth Worth International ---- 59,412,217
  • 7. Frankfurt International ---- 51,098,271
  • 8. Paris (Charles De Gaulle) ---- 50,860,561
  • 9 Amsterdam (Schiphol) ---- 42,541,180
  •    Denver International ---- 42,393,693
  •    Las Vegas (McCarran) ---- 43,436,571
  • 12. Phoenix (Sky Harbor) ---- 39,493,519

Airports Council International ---- 2005 figures are not yet complete, but those available vary little in ranking.

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Robert Malone, Forbes