Even domestic shipping can be complicated. That’s why freight forwarders exist—they handle much of the complex paperwork and hassle needed to move cargo across borders. For freight forwarders, some cities are definitely better than others.
To find out the best cities for freight forwarders, we asked Carlo De Atouguia, the chief operating officer of Western Overseas Corporation. For more than four decades, Western Overseas has provided freight forwarding, customs brokerage, warehousing, distribution, cargo insurance, and e-commerce services to small and large companies across the globe.
Atouguia zeroed in on a common theme to come up with the top 20 cities for freight forwarders. “These cities are key because they are integral gateway cities for both ocean and air,” he explains. “I believe it is an advantage having representation in these cities because it allows you to develop a personal business relationship with the major players in all facets of the freight forwarding supply chain in that city. These business relationships are key when negotiating spot rates, late cut-offs, drayage and expedited handling on cargo arrival.
“The other key factor is the sheer number of carriers and cargo flights available in a particular city,” he continues. “The more options you have, the better you’re able to service your customers’ freight forwarding needs.”
Air cargo and mail moving through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been steadily climbing for the past few years, from more than 624,000 metric tons in 2015 to a little over 704,000 metric tons in 2018, according to Statista. Which is why it wasn’t a shock that Georgia’s $40.6 billion worth of exports in 2018 was the highest in that state’s history. In fact, exports in Georgia have grown by 71 percent over the last decade, according to U.S. Census data. It’s no wonder there are more than 20 freight forwarders in the Atlanta area.
In the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, 15 ship-to-shore gantry cranes move about 900,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) every year, according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s also one of the most diverse ports in the U.S., with the six public marine terminals handling autos, roll-on/roll-off, containers, forest products and project cargo. The 11 million tons of cargo that moved through the port this past year was a new record, and the nearly 2.9 million tons of cargo the port handled in between April and June of 2019 also set a new second quarter record.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
The Port of Charleston is ranked ninth in the U.S. in terms of cargo value, according to the South Carolina Ports Authority. That translated into $72.7 billion worth of imports and exports in 2018. The port’s cranes handled 2.2 million TEUs that year. Thirteen of the world’s biggest container companies tie up there. While the port can already accommodate most post-Panamax vessels, efforts are under way to deepen the harbor from 45 to 52 feet. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when the port authority revealed in November 2019 that Charleston had doubled its cargo volume over the last decade.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA
Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) is ranked sixth in the nation and seventh in the world in terms of the number of passengers and volume of cargo handled, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. More than 60 freight forwarders, customs brokers and international service providers use CLT’s Air Cargo Center, which has 570,000 square feet of available space and 2.2 million square feet of aircraft ramp space. The CLT also links to the Norfolk Southern and CSX rail lines. It processed 128,000 tons of cargo in 2015.
Since the 19th century, Chicago has been a railway and ocean hub for commerce. Even today, a quarter of all rail freight in the U.S. passes through the Chicago rail yards. (It’s also the only gateway in the U.S. where six of the seven major railroads can interchange traffic.) An amazing 30 percent of all consumers in North America live within a one-day truck ride from Chicago. But in terms of cargo value, the Windy City is the top international air gateway in the U.S., with about 2 million metric tons of cargo moving through O’Hare International Airport every year, all worth more than $200 billion, according to Chicago’s Department of Aviation.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), which provides non-stop service to 38 of the top 40 U.S. markets, moved 1.2 million tons of cargo in 2018 and is the eighth largest cargo airport in the U.S., according to the CVG airport authority. For the past three years, it’s been the fastest-growing cargo airport in the U.S. It’s also the location for one of DHL’s three “global super hubs,” from which it serves 220 nations. Amazon also has plans to build a $1.5 billion hub at CVG, which will support more than 100 Prime Air freighters.
Because many of the warehouses and distribution centers that stand between international suppliers of goods like China and retail outlets are located in Texas, Dallas is perfectly located to serve as a freight hub for the rest of the nation, according to a 2018 FreightWaves e-newsletter article. Indeed, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport considers itself “the nexus of Latin America-Asia transit freight.” More than 900,000 tons of cargo moved through the airport in fiscal year 2018. According to the DFW Airport Authority, 55 percent of it was domestic and 45 percent was international.
The Port of Houston is one of the most heavily used water gateways in the country. According to the port authority, in 2017 it ranked first in the nation in terms of foreign waterborne tonnage (173 million short tons), second in total foreign and domestic waterborne tonnage (260 million short tons) and third in overall value of foreign cargo. It’s also the largest Gulf Coast container port, handling nearly 70 percent of all container traffic in that region. A little more than a million containers (imports and exports) moved through the port in 2001; today, that number stands at nearly 2.5 million.
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Long Beach has one of the busiest seaports in the world. The Port of Long Beach says its 68 Post-Panamax gantry cranes move around 7.5 million TEUs every year, all valued at close to $200 billion. That translates into 82.3 million metric tons of cargo moved in/out on more than 2,000 vessel calls. It’s the second busiest port in the U.S., and the 21st busiest container cargo port in the world. All told, the port accounts for a third of loaded containers moving through all California ports. About 90 percent of the shipments moving through the port are part of trade with East Asia.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Let’s start with the fact that the Port of Los Angeles has been the top container port in the U.S. since 2000. In 2018, its 83 gantry cranes handled 9.5 million TEUs—the highest number ever moved by a port in the western hemisphere—making it one of the busiest ports in the world. Then there’s Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fourth busiest, which handled nearly 2.5 million tons of cargo in 2018. According to Los Angeles World Airports, FedEx is the dominant airfreight carrier at LAX, carrying nearly 16 percent of the freight that moves through the airport.
Situated on the Ohio River, Louisville is well placed to handle all sorts of cargo traffic. In fact, Jefferson Riverport is one of the few inland ports in the U.S. that connects to three railroads: CSX, Norfolk Southern and Paducah & Louisville. The city is also, as the State of Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development is fond of pointing out, about a day’s truck drive away from 65 percent of the U.S. population. What’s more, Louisville International Airport is home to the UPS shipping hub—the world’s largest fully automated package-handling facility. One hundred thirty aircraft move through it each day, and it processes a remarkable 1.5 million packages daily.
In 2018, Miami International Airport ranked fourth in the nation in terms of both total cargo and total freight, and No. 1 in international freight, according to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. That year, 2.31 million tons of freight moved through the airport, nearly three percent higher than the previous year. At the same time, a thousand cargo ships docked at the Port of Miami—the East Coast’s closest deepwater container port to the Panama Canal—carrying 1.1 million TEUs worth around $27 billion. Nearly half the TEU imports to Miami came from Asia, while 70 percent of the exports went to Latin America, according to the Miami Port Authority.
Primarily due to FedEx, Memphis International Airport is the top international gateway in the U.S. by weight and the No. 2 cargo airport in the world. In 2016, 11.9 million short tons of cargo moved through the airport, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. FedEx accounts for a reported 99 percent of the cargo moving through Memphis International Airport, which carries out 450 combined arrivals and departures every day. Memphis is also home to the fifth largest inland port in the U.S., which is very close to the airport and lies at the juncture of major north-south and east-west interstate highways, as well as that of five major railroads.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
The only container port in Louisiana, the Port of New Orleans (Port NOLA) has six gantry cranes that can handle 840,000 TEUs a year. Containers make up about 60 percent of the cargo handled at the port, according to the Port NOLA authority. The port also ties into the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, offering daily intermodal service to Memphis, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal. Regular container-on-barge service also connects the port to Memphis and Baton Rouge.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
The Port of New York and New Jersey handled 41.3 million metric tons of general cargo worth more than $188 billion in 2018, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Put another way, the port handled 52 percent of all the unloaded and loaded TEUs on the North Atlantic. Add this to the 1.4 million tons of cargo that moved through JFK International Airport in 2018, and you can see why New York City holds such importance in the world of freight.
Situated two and a half hours from the open sea, the Port of Norfolk’s 22 Suez-class cranes moved 2.7 million TEUs in 2017, according to the port authority. It’s also so rail-friendly, with two class 1 railroads operating on-dock, that 37 percent of all cargo moving in and out of the port comes by rail—the largest percentage of any East Coast port. Norfolk International Airport also operates one of the most efficient cargo operations in Virginia, moving 30,000 tons of air cargo every year. FedEx, Mountain Air and UPS all use Norfolk International extensively.
For Philadelphia, location is everything. The city is about a day’s drive from nearly half the nation’s population, as well as six of the eight largest U.S. markets. There are also 400 distribution centers located within Philadelphia’s immediate vicinity. PhilaPort can handle cargo carriers holding 12,200 TEUs. The CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads both serve the port. In 2016, Philadelphia International Airport handled about 427,000 tons of cargo, and is home to nearly 40 freight forwarders. The airport sits next to I-95, which runs from Maine to Florida, and is close to both the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Port of Portland, the largest in Oregon, handles about 11 million tons of cargo every year, according to the port authority. The port can move containers, autos, breakbulk and drybulk. There are on-dock rail connections throughout the port, and BNSF Railway ties the container terminal directly to Seattle/Tacoma. Portland International Airport, located 12 miles from downtown Portland, is centered in the Columbia River Industrial Corridor. Eight cargo carriers use PDX, including UPS, FedEx and DHL. There are 47 freight forwarders serving the Portland area.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
About 488,000 tons of cargo moved through San Francisco International Airport in 2018. Nine cargo carriers operate out of the airport, serving destinations all over the world. Additionally, the Port of San Francisco’s five deepwater berths can accommodate a wide variety of container and bulk carriers. In all, 1.4 million tons of cargo moved through the port in 2017, according to the San Francisco Port Authority.
The Port of Savannah bills itself as the largest single container terminal in North America, and it is the second-largest container exporter in the U.S. (13.3 million tons). Two class 1 railroads serve its nine deepwater berths, which operate 27 container cranes. In 2018, the port handled 4.4 million TEUs, a new record for the port. Its major satellite facilities include warehouses and distribution centers for Target, IKEA and Heineken USA. Savannah Hilton Head International Airport handled a further 8,600 tons of cargo during 2018.