International cargo lift needed if Baiyun airport wants to take off
The flow of south China's manufactured goods through Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport slowed in the first quarter, but other signs continue to indicate the new 18 billion yuan complex will handle record volumes of airfreight this year.
Provisional estimates show Baiyun handled a little less than 190,000 tonnes of freight and mail in the first quarter. When the final tally is completed, sources at the airport expect a 7 per cent expansion of last year's first-quarter tonnage, slower than the 16 per cent growth it recorded last year when it handled more than 630,000 tonnes of cargo, excluding mail.
The result will mirror a softening of the overall south China market: Hongkong Air Cargo Terminals, Chek Lap Kok's No 1 freight handler, also saw its growth slow to 3 per cent in the first quarter, moving a little more than 532,300 tonnes.
A Baiyun official attributed the weaker first-quarter results to the impact of the Lunar New Year. But the downturn, which is not expected to last, has not deterred foreign cargo airlines from considering the mainland's newest airport.
Perhaps more illustrative of how quickly Guangzhou's capacity is expanding is that its aircraft movements - the number of take-offs and landings - grew 28.4 per cent last year to 183,000, or more than 500 per day.
While most of that traffic remains domestic, there is some expansion of international services.
The well-known brown tail fleet of express giant United Parcel Service (UPS) on Wednesday took its place beside Lufthansa Cargo and China Postal Airlines on the tarmac outside Guangzhou's expansive new cargo terminal.
Lufthansa in November became the first European airline to offer scheduled all-cargo flights to Baiyun from Frankfurt, and Air France has been threatening to fly 100-tonne capacity freighters to Guangzhou for the past six months but has delayed the move repeatedly, the last time due to its merger with Dutch carrier KLM.
The airport's intra-Asia network was boosted in January by Korean Air Cargo's weekly service to its hub in Seoul.
The litmus test for any airport's cargo credibility is when the integrators - global express operators such as UPS - call.
With UPS in its stable, the management on Wednesday said talks with Federal Express (FedEx) - ostensibly about making Baiyun half of its Asia-Pacific hub strategy - had reached an advanced stage and were expected to be concluded by the end of the year.
If it seems like FedEx has been dancing with Guangzhou for ages, it has. The company signed a non-binding letter of intent with the Guangzhou Airport Authority 18 months ago.
Frankly, the Memphis-based carrier is in no hurry to serve Guangzhou directly; it already has a service to Guangdong's No2 airport in Shenzhen and has told US aviation officials that it does expect to have its new hub, wherever it ends up, operational until 2010.
And while the infrastructure at Baiyun is spectacular, the foreign carrier network it needs to attract international cargo remains embryonic.
For example, Guangzhou is believed to have handled a little more than 1 per cent of the Sino-US airfreight market last year, almost none of which was express, the integrators' bread and butter.
That will change with UPS offering 480 tonnes a week of new uplift for exports this year. But the scarcity of international cargo at Baiyun did not escape one senior UPS official at the launch ceremony this week.
'I just hope we can fill it outbound,' he told Below Deck as the rain pelted the tarmac and the band played on.
The question is: Can Guangzhou develop fast enough for UPS's and FedEx's fleet aspirations?
Both have signed up for the freighter version of Airbus' A380, which will roughly double the capacity of the MD-11s UPS is using at Guangzhou.
Both intend to fly their first A380 between Asia and the US, and both are considering Guangzhou as a destination.
FedEx takes its first A380 in 2008, UPS in 2009.
While Hong Kong is sure to be among the first airports in Asia to host the A380, Guangzhou may not be ready.