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ATL can’t match LAX, Chicago, Beijing, others in top rankings for passengers, cargo

air cargo, moon

Atlanta mayors going back at least to Maynard Jackson, in the 1990s, have dreamed of the revenue and jobs that would accompany a cargo handling trade that ranks among the world's Top 20. Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s airport again ranks as the world’s busiest passenger airport. ATL again didn’t rank in the Top 20 for handling cargo – though airports in Los Angeles, Chicago and Beijing and ranked in the Top 20 in both categories, a recent report shows.

air cargo, moon

Atlanta mayors going back at least to Maynard Jackson, in the 1990s, have dreamed of the revenue and jobs that would accompany a cargo handling trade that ranks among the world’s Top 20. Credit: David Pendered

Other airports that earned Top 20 rankings for passengers and cargo include Shanghai, Dubai, Paris, Frankfurt, Incheon, London’s Heathrow Airport, and Amsterdam, according to the annual ranking released in September by the trade association Airports Council International.

Cargo handling represents a significant revenue stream for airports.

Money and jobs is the reason then-Mayor Maynard Jackson called in the early 1990s for high-end goods to be assembled at the airport from parts flown in by plane, with finished high-end goods flown out to buyers. The notion never gained traction in Atlanta and in North Carolina, which was a trendsetter, the concept didn’t produce the expected outcomes – the biggest deal in 2018 at the Global Transpark, in Kinston, was a $10.5 million facility to paint and refurbish aircraft, according to a report.

The same factors that motivated Jackson evidently prompted then-Mayor Kasim Reed to call for an expanded cargo program, which was to be part of a 24/7 airport operation:

  • “At midnight, the airport should be handling cargo,” Reed said at the 2011 State of the Ports Luncheon.
ATL, air cargo

The cargo facilities at Atlanta’s airport benefit from proximity to interstate highways including I-85, I-75 and I-285. Credit: David Pendered

The current expansion program at Atlanta’s airport includes facilities intended to attract more cargo trade. The uphill nature of the battle in the international cargo realm was cited in a 2015 report by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The report, to be updated by late 2020, observed of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport:

  • “Air cargo growth at HJAIA is facing competition from other larger international airports”

Here are some snippets of three airports with Top 20 rankings in both categories:

  • LAX – World’s 4th busiest airport for passengers and 10th in the cargo category. LAX is moving up the charts in both passengers and cargo: From 5th to 4th in passengers, based on a 3.5 percent increase; From 13th to 10th in cargo, based on a 2.4 percent growth rate from 2017 to 2018.
  • Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport – World’s 6th busiest for passengers and 18th for cargo. Chicago remained in 6th place in both years, despite a 4.3 percent growth in passenger volume. In cargo, Chicago moved from 20th to 18th, based on a 5 percent increase.
  • Beijing – Of note, PEK remained the world 2nd busiest passenger airport and marked a 5.4 percent increase in passenger volume, compared to 3.3 percent at Atlanta. Beijing’s ranking in cargo fell to 16th from 15th, despite a 2.2 percent increase in cargo handled.
air cargo

Atlanta has plans to increase the amount of cargo handled at Atlanta’s airport, including this facility, where a plane can be seen taking off in the background. Credit: David Pendered

Current efforts to grow the cargo trade at Atlanta’s airport includes a section that can handle perishable goods.

The airport has the capacity to apply cold treatment, which is an alternative to methyl bromide that is commonly used to eradicate pests in fresh commodities transported around the world. The process is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition, the airport is designed as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Port of Entry, which allows the facility to receive shipments of fish and wildlife.

The airport’s expansion program includes this description of the cargo facility that is to be complete in 2021:

  • “ATL will undergo a phased expansion of facilities, with a goal of adding up to 1 million square feet of warehouse space. At the same time, ATL will construct a vehicle staging area to relieve cargo truck congestion, and also add parking capacity for cargo aircraft and vehicles. The work is expected to total more than $200 million in upgrades.”



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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