A plane takes off at Ezhou Huahu Airport in Hubei province. (XIAO YIJIU / XINHUA)
The opening of an airport on Sunday in Central China's Hubei province marks a step toward prioritizing airfreight transportation, with Asia's first and the world's fourth air cargo transportation hub.
The specialized center is also meant to help boost the industry's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new facility, at Ezhou, Hubei province, increases the country's civil aviation airports to 251.
Ezhou Huahu Airport, built with an investment of over 32 billion yuan ($4.74 billion), will initially operate two freight routes－to Shenzhen and Shanghai－and later this year will open international freight routes to Osaka, Japan, and Frankfurt, Germany.
By 2025, the intention is that the new airport will handle 2.45 million metric tons of cargo and mail per year, and the long-term goal to increase that to 9.08 million tons.
Last year, Hong Kong International Airport was ranked as the World's Busiest Cargo Airport by Airports Council International, when it handled a record 5 million tons of cargo, 12.5 percent more than in 2020.
Ezhou Huahu Airport will also operate passenger routes to nine domestic cities at first, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and Xiamen, Fujian province.
The airport is situated about 120 km southeast of Wuhan, the provincial capital, where another major civil aviation airport, Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, is located.
"The new airport and Wuhan Tianhe International Airport will form a dual-hub system in the region, boosting the transportation of passengers and cargo," said Zhang Gan, director of the planning and development department at Hubei International Logistics Airport Corp.
Because of its location, flights from Ezhou Huahu Airport will be able to reach most major domestic cities within 90 minutes.
"From the new airport, cargo can be transported to most regions of China overnight and connect to the world the next day," Zhang said.
The governments of Hubei and Ezhou have cooperated with SF Express, a major logistics company, to build an international logistics hub, and the new airport will play a key role.
Chinese airports handled altogether 17.83 million tons of cargo and mail last year, a year-on-year increase of 10.9 percent, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Because China's civil aviation sector, especially passenger flights, was badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two and half years, some airlines have promoted cargo flights to make up for the loss of passengers, said Li Xiaojin, a professor of aviation economics at Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin.
Before the pandemic, air cargo revenue typically accounted for about 5 percent of airlines' income. With the onset of COVID-19, passenger trips declined and the number of freight routes rose. In some cases, earnings from cargo flights doubled or even tripled, he said.
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