After pandemic frenzy, air freight numbers falling back at Valley International Airport

Jan. 24—HARLINGEN — Air cargo tonnage at Valley International Airport continues its downward trend, paralleling global numbers, with overall outbound freight down 14.3 percent in December and inbound freight down 36.5 percent.

FedEx continues to dominate the air cargo business at VIA, enplaning 906 tons of cargo outbound in December, an increase of 0.2 percent compared to the same month a year ago.

As for inbound cargo, FedEx shipped in 1,205 tons, a drop of 9.9 percent.

Southwest Airlines, which around a year ago increased its passenger flight frequency at VIA to seven per day, shipped out 24 tons of cargo, a 41.2 percent increase over last year. Southwest brought in 29 tons, a 5.8 percent increase.

In Southwest's case, more flights mean more available belly space, some of which is dedicated to freight in addition to luggage.

But other freight haulers working for DHL were less active in the VIA market, with ABX shipping out just 22 tons, a 91 percent drop from a year ago, and bringing in 54 tons, a drop of 93.3 percent. 21 Air LLC, a newcomer this year, flew out 47 tons and brought in 94 tons.

"A lot of little components contribute to that being down, including the DHL flights," said Marv Esterly, director of aviation at VIA. "DHL used to coordinate with Monterrey so it was one aircraft that would fly from Cincinnati to Harlingen, Harlingen to Monterrey, picking up cargo, kind of like a milk run. And Monterrey back to Harlingen and Harlingen to Cincinnati."

DHL decided to opt for a direct daily flight from Monterrey to Cincinnati, cutting out the Harlingen stop, Esterly said.

"And in doing that you're going to have less cargo weight, you're going to lose that cargo weight," he added. "But that's not everything. We know that during the pandemic there was a lot of online buying, and we all know there's still a lot of online buying. But during the pandemic there was a huge amount; people were ordering everything they could online and not going out."

Sizzle to fizzle

During the height of the pandemic online shopping increased massively, but it appears the burst of activity for big online retail companies has peaked and may be returning to more modest levels.

Amazon, for example, last week began the first of what company executives say will be 18,000 layoffs, with many of these employees hired during the pandemic boom times.

"Amazon is trimming its head count after it went on a hiring spree during the COVID-19 pandemic," the business news channel CNBC reported this month. "The company's global workforce swelled to more than 1.6 million by the end of 2021, up from 798,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019."

Other big online retailers are following Amazon's lead.

In the past week or so, Wayfair announced it was laying off 1,100 employees, and Shopify said it was eliminating 600 positions.

"We all know that there's some inflation out there which was unexpected, so people are really contracting, the economy's contracting a bit, people watching what they spend," Esterly said, adding a caveat that he was just speculating. "That could have some effect on it as well."

Global outlook

The forecast for global air cargo volumes anticipates a decline of 4 percent year-on-year in 2023, following a 2022 drop of 8 percent, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said, citing a market cool-down from the vibrant growth during the pandemic.

About 80 percent of cross-border commerce, much of it online purchasing, is shipped by air.

Global cargo revenue is expected to reach $149.4 billion in 2023, down from $201.4 billion the previous year. The numbers are still about 50 percent above pre-pandemic levels, IATA says.