Shenzhen airport sees robust cargo growth
The airfreight industry on the Chinese mainland has experienced remarkable growth, with passenger travel still in the doldrums during the pandemic.
This expansion has been driven by strong global demand for medical supplies to combat COVID-19 and the exponential growth of e-commerce, with more people working, shopping and seeking entertainment online.
The mainland has also been one of the first areas worldwide to make a strong rebound from the pandemic.
The air cargo sector appears poised for another boost this year from the massive distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
Last year, Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport in Guangdong province was ahead of its rivals, with its freight volume growing 9 percent－the fastest rate among the country's top five air cargo airports. The facility is also expected to outperform most of the world's top 10 air cargo hubs, which recorded slowing growth in the first half of last year.
Meanwhile, cargo throughput at Hong Kong International Airport was down 6.99 percent last year compared with 2019.
The robust growth at Shenzhen airport looks set to help it retain its newly found edge in handling freight during the post-pandemic recovery period. The airport has opened eight new international routes for cargo－the biggest addition to its list of such destinations for seven years.
With its total annual cargo volume reaching 1.4 million metric tons, the airport ranked third in China last year, and featured among the world's top 30 in 2019.
It has been quick to seize opportunities after the initial shocks of the pandemic buffeted the aviation industry.
Zhang Jinlin, a manager at the airport's international cargo center, said he was surprised by the dramatic change in the business outlook last year.
In February and March last year, operations at the airport hit rock bottom because of the pandemic, forcing Zhang to work mostly from home.
However, he said the turnaround came in April, when the airport apron was packed with aircraft from different countries. Zhang said he had never seen some of the planes, including an Antonov AN-124, the world's second-largest cargo aircraft, in the 16 years he had worked at the facility. Some of the aircraft had been previously requisitioned for military use.
One company even sent a fleet of six planes to the airport on a single mission.
Face masks, testing kits and ventilators were flown from the airport to other parts of the world to help people in need at a time when the pandemic was being brought under control in China but was raging elsewhere.
At China's busiest airports, including Shenzhen's, there was acute demand for exports of medical supplies to fight the pandemic.
Zhang's team worked night and day to handle the huge amount of work. He lives near the airport, and sometimes had to be called back to work in the middle of the night. Some of his colleagues who live farther away voluntarily slept at the airport to save time.
Air cargo demand remained strong last year, but the supplies being shipped changed as the world entered a new phase in the battle against the virus.
Initial demand for anti-pandemic supplies was followed by orders for e-commerce goods, ranging from fitness equipment to gardening tools. Demand for such items was strong in developed countries with burgeoning "stay-at-home" economies.
Vaccines are high on the list as countries look to inoculate their populations to contain the pandemic.
Wan Jianjun, deputy general manager of Shenzhen airport's logistics department, said it is ready to play a crucial role in meeting the huge global demand for shipments of COVID-19 vaccines. Wang cited the airport's expertise in cold-chain medicine deliveries and a rapidly expanding network of international airlines.
After airports in Beijing and Shanghai, the Shenzhen facility obtained the International Air Transport Association's Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in pharmaceutical logistics in October－an internationally recognized certification for cold-chain medicine deliveries. The airport also has a 350-square-meter refrigeration center and three refrigerated trailers.
In late November, Ethiopian Airlines and Cainiao International, the logistics arm of Alibaba Group, launched the first regular international cold chain route between China and Africa from Shenzhen airport. The route was used to transport temperature-controlled drugs, including COVID-19 vaccines, to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Medical supplies are kept at temperatures as low as－23 C along the route－cold enough for the storage conditions required for most COVID-19 vaccines throughout the distribution process.
The route is currently being used for two weekly shipments of anti-pandemic supplies. Testing of vaccine deliveries began in mid-January and such supplies are expected to be shipped in bulk from the second quarter of this year, according to Cainiao International.
Wan expects the surge in demand to continue, with more vaccines on course to be licensed for use.
In December, the UAE and Bahrain granted marketing authorization for vaccines developed by the mainland pharmaceutical company Sinopharm. On Jan 2, Egypt also approved the emergency use of Sinopharm vaccines.
Zhang Jun, ambassador and permanent representative of China to the United Nations, wrote in an article last week that Chinese vaccine aid has been provided to 14 developing countries and will soon reach 38 more, as part of broader efforts to deliver on its pledge to make its vaccines a global public good.
Vaccine developer Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products Co has collaborated with AstraZeneca from the United Kingdom to produce a COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by the latter company and Oxford University. Kangtai has promised an annual capacity of 200 million doses of vaccines by the end of next year.
Last year, Shenzhen airport handled more than 2,900 international cargo flights to 46 countries. Industry insiders attributed the performance to the city's solid foundations for the biomedicine and cross-border e-commerce industries.
The special economic zone boasts a thriving cluster of biomedicine enterprises, including Shenzhen Kangtai Biological Products Co and BGI Genomics, a leading producer of COVID-19 testing kits. Ventilator supplier Mindray Bio-Medical Electronics Co is also based in Shenzhen.
The city is an e-commerce hub for domestic and international transactions and home to numerous small and medium-sized companies running related businesses that form sophisticated industrial chains.
Despite the pressure it faces, Shenzhen airport has overcome challenges and enhanced its freight capacity. The changes it has made mainly in response to the pandemic may prove crucial to its ambitions of consolidating competitiveness in cargo handling and becoming an international cargo transportation hub.
Wan said cold-chain delivery of medicines and other high-value products, such as seafood and fruit, will be a major area for growth.
The progress made at Shenzhen airport reflects China's efforts to catch up with global air freight leaders.
Mao Lingke, senior logistics adviser at Cainiao Global Supply Chain, said the pandemic has exposed the country's weak point in air cargo transportation.
China's airfreight sector has lagged behind some developed countries in building a business ecosystem for cargo flights, international airlines and airport facilities.
The pandemic has shown the strategic significance of airfreight in maintaining global supply chains, as these shipments involve high-value-added commodities such as biomedicines and high-tech instruments.
At a State Council meeting in March last year, the central government pledged a range of initiatives to strengthen international air freight capacity. The measures included policies aimed at encouraging aviation companies to buy or rent more cargo planes, relaxing restrictions on cargo airlines' operations, and establishing information sharing platforms among logistics companies.
Mao said the favorable policy environment would help Shenzhen airport unleash the great potential of its freight business, but he stressed the need for coordinated development with nearby counterparts in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.
Shenzhen airport has seen a higher growth rate for its cargo business than airports in Guangzhou, the Guangdong provincial capital, and Hong Kong, but its business volume still trails that of its counterparts in the other two cities.
Zhang, the Shenzhen airport cargo center manager, said some business had shifted from Hong Kong airport to Shenzhen during the pandemic.
A considerable volume of domestic goods used to be transported to Hong Kong airport via Shenzhen for export. However, due to the pandemic, restrictions imposed on cross-border cargo deliveries have resulted in some international airlines and express delivery companies, including DHL, diverting some of their business to Shenzhen airport, Zhang said.
Mao suggested that airports determine their strengths and coordinate planning of international routes and cooperation with airlines.
"If Shenzhen airport can make a head start in cold-chain deliveries, it should further upgrade its expertise and capacity in this area into a pivotal business," he said.
Mao also stressed the importance of further simplifying procedures to transfer goods among airports, especially between Hong Kong airport and those in the mainland.
He said it is vital to improve land routes connecting these airports, including opening more fast tracks for cargo transportation.