More and more planes are landing at Los Angeles International Airport these days, and they’re arriving with more and more passengers.

But they’re also delivering less and less cargo. While the number of passengers and flights both grew nearly 5 percent last year, the amount of cargo entering and leaving the airport fell by more than 4 percent. Those trends continued in January, with more flights and passengers, and nearly 6 percent less cargo.

Beth Siapkas, president of the Los Angeles Air Cargo Association, said she can explain the downward cargo trend in two words: “ocean freight.”

As importers and exporters try to cut costs, many have stopped shipping through the air and are instead opting for slower, cheaper shipping on the high seas, said Siapkas, a business development manager in the Torrance office of Portland, Ore., firm OIA Global Logistics.

“Most of my customers are going with ocean freight simply because it is much, much cheaper,” she said. “Ocean freight is probably 10 to 20 percent of the cost of air freight. When you compare the capacity of a 20-foot (shipping) container, then calculate that into air freight, the cost would be astronomical.”

Some goods have always been shipped air freight, either because they would spoil during a lengthy ocean voyage – think fresh flowers – or because they are high-value items shipped in small quantities – think diamonds. But before the recession, other types of goods, such as clothing, textiles and even frozen seafood, all of which can be shipped ocean freight, were also imported through the air.

Roger Clarke, president of Wilmington freight-forwarder Williams Clarke Co. Inc., said that’s because importers needed to meet demand and could pay the premium to do so. Many of his clients import frozen food, heavy products that are more economically shipped in refrigerated shipping containers than by air.

“But at one time, we had a whole charter flight full of frozen seafood,” he said. “We only did that because with ocean shipping, (the importer) couldn’t get it here fast enough to meet the demand.”

Los Angeles isn’t alone, other U.S. airports saw their numbers slide last year as well. The amount of cargo at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport dropped about a half-percent, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport nearly 4 percent and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport more than 8 percent. Worldwide, the volume of air freight fell about a half-percent in 2011, according to the International Air Transport Association.


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