Congestion-free West Coast hits Hong Kong air cargo growth

Congestion-free West Coast hits Hong Kong air cargo growth

The year-over-year distortions of the U.S. West Coast port dispute early in 2015 that pushed shippers to the skies were keenly felt in February cargo volumes at Hong Kong International Airport that recorded a drop of 15 percent compared to the same month last year.

During the month of February the world’s busiest cargo airport handled 258,000 tons less air freight than a year ago, enough to fill 2,500 Boeing 777 freighters. Driving the sharp decline was a 23 percent drop in exports compared to February 2015, according to data from Hong Kong’s Airport Authority. Imports were down 9 percent and transshipment dropped 6 percent year-over-year.

“The decrease of cargo volume in February this year is partly due to the industrial action at ports on the West Coast of the United States in the first quarter of 2015, which resulted in a strong figure in air cargo during the same month last year,” the HKIA said in a statement.

By February last year, the industrial dispute involving longshore workers had brought the primary West Coast gateways of Los Angeles and Long Beach to a standstill and forced shippers to move urgent cargo from ocean to air. While the port congestion ramped up air freight volumes, the underlying weakness in the market soon brought the carriers back down to Earth, and it was only late in the last quarter of 2015 that business improved.

Cathay Pacific’s total cargo volumes in January were basically flat, showing just 0.3 percent growth compared with the same month last year. However, the carrier’s North America segment performed well in January 2016 with volumes up 7.2 percent year-over-year.

While the world’s largest air cargo carrier has not yet released February's throughput figures, its strength on the trans-Pacific trades could see the airline posting some less-than-attractive growth figures when compared with last year.

These are the February 2015 numbers it has to beat: Cathay Pacific carried 130,467 tons of cargo and mail last month, an increase of 28.8 percent compared to the previous February. North American routes, the carrier’s largest sector by some distance, grew 12.7 percent.

While the growth comparisons for air cargo were negative, for the congestion-free U.S. West Coast gateway ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach it was the other way around. Los Angeles container traffic was up 42 percent in February and Long Beach saw year-over-year growth in volumes of almost 36 percent in the same month.

Asia Pacific cargo comprises almost 40 percent of global volumes, and while it expanded 1.3 percent in January compared to the same month last year, the International Air Transport Association said emerging Asia trade actually contracted in the second half of 2015 as weakness set in.

Despite showing slight growth in January, IATA said in a statement that the underlying weak trade performance made it unlikely growth would accelerate much in the coming months.    

“It is good news that volumes are growing, but yields and revenues are still under tremendous pressure,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s director general and CEO.

Contact Greg Knowler at and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.

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