Top North American Seaports and Airports Realize Record Volumes

Containers stacked at the Port of Savannah
The Port of Savannah, along with several other North American ports, experienced double-digit growth during 2021. (Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press)

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Seaports across North America spent last year playing catch-up after the disruptions caused by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and the resurgence in freight demand as the economy recovered. Despite numerous challenges including supply short­ages and container backlogs, several major ports recorded record-breaking years in terms of container volumes in 2021.

This growth is evident on Transport Topics’ new Top 25 list of the largest container ports in North America. The list ranks ports on the basis of 2021 cargo throughput as measured in 20-foot-equivalent units, or TEUs.

The top eight ports on the list all recorded double-­digit percentage increases in TEUs at their facilities. All but four of the top 25 North American ports saw some increase in container traffic compared with 2020, and some experienced remarkably high increases, such as the Port of Lázaro Cárdenas, which grew its volume of TEUs processed by 58.5%.

Among the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York/New Jersey and Savannah, the four largest container ports in the United States, 2021 brought a collective TEU increase of 5,066,291. The former three all experienced container volume increases of at least 1 million TEUs.

Figures for ports along the Panama Canal, which include the Port of Cristobal, Colon Container Terminal, Manzanillo International Terminal, the Port of Balboa and PSA Panama International Terminal, include transshipment movements.

While North America’s largest ports were able to post record volumes while navigating supply chain snarls and severe congestion, shippers and consumers alike have been feeling the effects of dramatic increases in ocean shipping costs globally.

According to a report from data technology com­pany Knoema Corp., which references data measured by the Freightos Baltic Index, container freight shipping rates in July 2021 had increased fourfold over 2020 rates. Freight shipping rates from China and East Asia to Northern Europe and North America increased seven times since the start of 2020, and the cost of container shipping to China increased by two to three times.

According to Statista’s container freight rate index, ­global rates for 40-foot containers reached a record ­level of nearly $10,400 in September 2021. That figure declined to $8,200 by March 2022, which was still more than six times higher than March 2020.


A Boeing plane at Ted Stevens Anchorage International

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport overtook Memphis International as the top cargo airport in North America. (Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport via Facebook)

While the pandemic’s disruptions of the global supply chain have continued, 2021 saw a marked improvement in the air cargo industry. With increased demand from global consumers, the traffic of goods leaving and entering North American airports reached its highest levels in years.

THE RANKINGS: Top 100 airports by landed weight

Overall, air cargo volumes increased by 18.7% in 2021 year-over-year, according to the International Air Transport Association. The significant rise in volume made 2021 the second-best year for global air traffic volume since these specific measurements began in 1990, and the best year since 2010.

The jump in demand for consumer goods, including personal protective equipment and other pandemic-­related necessities, was met with struggles for air cargo capacity. For the calendar year, available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTK), which measures capacity for airfreight, were 10.9% below that of 2019. Air carriers were able to assuage these issues over time, as the decrease in ACTKs for December 2021 compared with December 2019 was just 4.7%.

Another symptom of the pan­demic was an all-time high in airfreight costs. According to Statista, rates for airfreight between Hong Kong and North America were $12.72 per kilogram in December 2021. In 2022, rates have been slowly decreasing, but remain well above the pre-pandemic numbers.

FedEx planes at Memphis International Airport

Memphis International, home of the FedEx Express World Hub, sits at No. 2 on the ranking of North American cargo airports. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport led the pack in 2021 for air cargo, processing more than 25 billion pounds of freight. The airport increased its volume over 2020 by more than 2.3 billion pounds, a rise of 14%. The Alaskan airport took the top spot in the North American market that was pre­viously held by Memphis International in Tennessee. Memphis was one of just three airports in the top 20 that saw an overall decrease in freight volume compared to 2020.

A noteworthy addition to the top 10 in 2021 was John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, which experienced a rise in air cargo volume of 1.59 billion pounds. The airport’s freight operations figure to continue expanding as well, with plans to replace two of its cargo facilities with an “expanded, best-in-class cargo facility” by the end of 2023, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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