Chicago and Doha among the stellar performers

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Cargo volumes at the 20 busiest airports grew by 6.8 per cent in 2017. These airports handled a combined 51 million tonnes, about 43 per cent of global air cargo volumes, writes Neil Madden.

Of particular interest was the double-digit growth recorded by three of the top 20. Shanghai’s throughput was up 11.2 per cent, which is perhaps not surprising. But the major Chinese hub was outdone by Chicago O’Hare (12.6 per cent) and Qatar’s Doha (15 per cent).

As a key cargo centre, Chicago is also seeing the benefits of significantly expanded facilities. Total tonnage handled at O’Hare was approximately 1.9 million tonnes, the second consecutive year that the airport has broken all previous records.

O’Hare also benefitted from international trade with China and other Asian countries, as international freight volumes grew by 12.2 per cent.

Last year saw two significant stages in O’Hare’s $220 million investment in expanding the northeast cargo campus, which is on track to be the largest cargo development built at a US airport in more than a decade when completed in the next few years.

DHL selected the campus for a new 54,000 square foot gateway, expanding its existing operations, and featuring a unique onsite US Customs facility that allows for faster processing for inbound and outbound international shipments.

In addition to accommodating future volume growth, the expanded operations will supplement the US network capacity of DHL to expedite packages at peak seasons such as the November-December holidays. O’Hare is also home to the DHL Global Forwarding facility, a 491,000 square foot office and warehouse building that houses 500 employees.

Prior to this was the opening of the second phase of the campus. The new facility opened ahead of schedule in direct response to strong demand for moving air cargo through Chicago.

The 240,000 square-foot Phase II building is home to Burak, Cargolux and Swissport. Expanding new warehouse capacity gives O’Hare the ability to process greater volumes in a number of ways. The addition of B747-8 capable aircraft ramps provides 50 per cent additional capacity to handle cargo; and in its final form the northeast cargo development will deliver 800,000 square feet of warehousing and apron pavement.

These investments will make room for up to 15 wide body aircraft to unload at any given time. Phase III is now expected to open in two to three years, also ahead of schedule.

Qatar’s Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha continued its impressive performance into the first quarter of this year, following a 15 per cent rise in throughput last year.

HIA handled 514,299 tonnes of cargo between January and March, which the airport says signifies a marked increase from the previous year.

But all the more remarkable is that the figures belie the fact that Qatar has been under an economic blockade imposed by neighbouring countries for the past 12 months.

Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed sanctions on Qatar for allegedly providing succour to militant Islamist groups.

Nevertheless, Qatar has so far withstood the blockade. Qatar Airways found that the 18 air corridors it had been using were cut to just two overnight, as it was blocked from flying through Bahraini, Saudi or Emirati airspace.

Today the airline still has to take longer routes around these zones, adding to flight times and costs and has pushed it into a ‘substantial’ loss for the year.

But the Kingdom is pushing ahead with big infrastructure projects, not least the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the economy as a whole has been buoyed by the sharp rise in oil and gas prices plugging much of the shortfall in revenues.

Qatar Airways even signed a letter of intent in April to buy five B777 freighters, valued at $1.7 billion at list prices, which are capable of flying 4,900 nautical miles with a payload of 112 tons.