THE international air-cargo business is soaring as Japanese consumer-electronics makers step up export of parts and equipment to overseas plants, and the strong yen boosts imports of finished goods, according to the Nikkei Weekly . The volume of air cargo that arrived at Tokyo's Narita airport in the first half to September was 20 per cent higher year-on-year. The industry expects cargo demand will continue to grow for some time, keeping freight rates high. Exports through Narita in the first half rose 18.9 per cent compared to the same period last yearto 186,329 metric tonnes, while imports grew 21.2 per cent to 190,157 tonnes, according to a survey conducted by Tokyo Air Cargo City Terminal.(Tact). The company handles air cargo at the airport. Tact attributes the rise in exports to a surge in shipments of parts for computers, electric appliances and precision instruments. Japanese manufacturers with overseas plants continue to keep high-tech production in Japan. Exports increased even while consumer-electronics makers continued shifting production to other Asian nations due to the yen's sharp appreciation between March and early July. Particular growth was noted in exports of steppers, used in the manufacture of microchips, according to a Tact official. Imports of clothing and textiles from other Asian nations, as well as perishables such as fish, meat and vegetables, rose steeply. Imports of desktop and notebook personal computers (PCs) also increased. The short development cycles of PCs had prompted more importers to opt for shipment by air rather than by sea, an official of Nippon Express Co said. Traffic with other Asian countries now accounts for about half the volume of Japan's international air shipments. This contrasts with 1990, when about 80 per cent of such cargo was shipped on United States and European routes. Ministry of Transport figures show 26 per cent of Japan's exports in the January-July period went to the US, 23.7 per cent to Europe, and 46.2 per cent to other parts of Asia. Air-transport companies, which must report their charges to the ministry, generally offer a discount, depending on shipment volume and other factors. Customers desperate to slash distribution costs are clamouring for a cut in air-cargo charges. But rates for air transport between Tokyo and the US West Coast, the benchmark for air freight, are holding steady at 560-680 yen (about HK$43.10-$52.36) per kilogramme, due to robust demand.