Beijing Airport Eclipses London Heathrow; Hong Kong Top in Cargo

Beijing Airport Eclipses London Heathrow
Crowds at Beijing Capital Airport, China. Photographer: Lucas Schifres/Bloomberg

Beijing surpassed London Heathrow as the world’s second-busiest airport last year, and Hong Kong climbed to the top spot for freight, as China’s economic growth fueled passenger and cargo volumes.

Traveler numbers in the Chinese capital jumped 13 percent to 73.9 million, trailing only Atlanta, according to data published yesterday by Airports Council International. Heathrow fell to fourth from second, with passenger numbers dropping 0.2 percent to 65.9 million, as a sluggish U.K. economy and cancellations after a volcanic eruption in Iceland hurt demand.

China’s gross domestic product grew 10.3 percent in 2010, the fastest in three years, as the nation of 1.3 billion people surpassed Japan to become the world’s No. 2 economy. Beijing airport was 14th globally as recently as five years ago with 41 million passengers, a total now matched by airports in Guangzhou and Shanghai, which rank in the top 20, according to ACI.

“It’s reasonable to think China can continue with double-digit growth for the foreseeable future,” said Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners in London. “We’re really only scratching the surface and there’s still unsatisfied demand.”

Cunningham said air travel typically expands at twice the pace of the economy, and Chinese demand should, therefore, increase at close to 20 percent a year, though that may be curbed by constraints such as a lack of trained pilots.

Atlanta, London

In the U.S., the world’s largest economy, Atlanta attracted 89.3 million passengers last year, up 1.5 percent and still 15 million ahead of Beijing. Chicago O’Hare International Airport ranked third globally with 66.7 million customers after growth of 3.3 percent.

Beijing Capital International Airport Co., operator of the city’s airport, rose 0.7 percent to HK$4.09 yesterday at 9:37 a.m. in Hong Kong trading. It’s dropped 1.5 percent this year. Air China Ltd., the city’s biggest carrier, climbed 2.2 percent to HK$7.14.

Heathrow, where strikes by British Airways crews added to disruption from the Icelandic volcano, remained Europe’s busiest as next-ranked Paris Charles de Gaulle added only 0.4 percent more passengers, the third-worst performance in the top 30. Las Vegas had the only drop other than Heathrow, down 2.6 percent.

“While North America and Europe have struggled to reach pre-crisis passenger volumes, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America-Caribbean and the Middle East sustained a strong momentum and gained market share,” Angela Gittens, director general of the ACI, an industry group, said in a statement.

Hong Kong Cargo

In the freight market, Hong Kong’s volumes surged 23 percent to 4.17 million metric tons, propelling it past Memphis International, FedEx Corp.’s main hub, which had a 5.9 percent increase to 3.9 million tons.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. became the world’s biggest international air-cargo carrier in 2010, supplanting Korean Air Lines Co. with help by exports from the neighboring Pearl River Delta. FedEx, No. 1 when both international and domestic shipments are included, and United Parcel Service Inc. have opened hubs in the region.

Shanghai was the world’s third-busiest cargo airport last year, when it also became the busiest container port. China boosted exports of electronics, clothes and other goods 31 percent in 2010, while the rising number of millionaires is also spurring inbound shipments of luxury goods and fresh foods.

Global passenger traffic rose 6.3 percent overall, based on results from more than 900 airports, ACI said. Cargo rose 15 percent and aircraft movements increased by less than 1 percent.

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