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U.S. Airports, Not Seaports, Lead The Way In Top 10 Export Ranking

Among the nation’s top 10 gateways for U.S. exports are five airports, and there’s a bit of good news in there for what it says about the U.S. economy.

Based on value, the ranking has two seaports and three land-based border crossings, according to U.S. Census Bureau data through April, the latest available.

By way of comparison, among the nation’s top gateways for imports are six seaports, three airports and one border crossing.

This is the third in a series of columns about the nation’s exports.

It follows similar series I did for the countries that are the nation’s top 10 trade partners for overall trade and one for the airports, seaports and border crossings that are the nation’s top 10 “ports,” also for overall trade

The first article in this series focused on an overview of the top 10 exports. The second focused on the 10 countries that are among the top 10 partners for U.S. exports. Following this post, I will look at each of the top 10 exports in greater detail.

The reason its goods news to have five airports among the top 10 is that, broadly speaking, air cargo tends to be products requiring higher levels of production or enhancement.

That translates to a more skilled labor force. Pharmaceuticals would be an example: Expensive and perishable, so they fly to limit exposure to the supply chain. Also pushing them to the skies: Lightweight, so they fly.

The reason for using value rather than tonnage data is two-fold.

First, airports can never compete with seaports by tonnage, since heavy commodities like oil, grains, cement and so forth all sail. In addition, U.S. Census Bureau data does not accurately reflect tonnage data at land-based border crossings.

Looking at value tends to level the playing field.

Interestingly enough, however, the top-ranked gateway this year for only the second time in two decades, is the Port of Houston. That’s not surprising given the fact that the nation’s top three exports this year are refined petroleum, oil and natural gas.

Over the course of the last six years, again looking at year-to-date data through April, the Port of Houston has ranked first twice, JFK International Airport twice and Port Laredo twice.

Prior to 2017, JFK ranked first for nine consecutive years, dating back to April of 2008.

No other gateway has ranked in the top three since in the last five years. These three have consistently accounted for about 17% of all U.S. exports for decades. That percentage is not inconsequential considering there are more than 450 airports, seaports and border crossings in the United States.

Here are the top 10:

  1. Port of Houston
  2. JFK International Airport
  3. Port Laredo
  4. Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge
  5. Port of Corpus Christi
  6. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport
  7. Los Angeles International Airport
  8. Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge in Michigan
  9. New Orleans International Airport
  10. Cleveland International Airport

Notice that only one of these trade gateways is on the West Coast, LAX, and it’s an airport. Notice also that only one is on the east coast, JFK.

Three are on the Gulf Coast — the Port of Houston, the Port of Corpus Christi and New Orleans International. Four are Midwestern — Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, O’Hare, Port Huron’s Blue Water Bridge and Cleveland International Airport. The 10th is Port Laredo in Texas.

Now look at the top 10 trade gateways for imports:

  1. Port of Los Angeles
  2. Chicago’s O’Hare
  3. Port of Newark
  4. Port Laredo
  5. JFK
  6. Port of Savannah
  7. Port of Houston
  8. LAX
  9. Port of Long Beach
  10. Port of Charleston, S.C.

Pretty different list. Only five of the 10 appear on both lists: O’Hare, Port Laredo, JFK, Port of Houston and LAX.

Also by way of contrast, you have three on the West Coast, not one: LAX and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. You have four on the East Coast, not one: Newark, JFK, Savannah and Charleston. Only one, O’Hare, and not four, is in the Midwest. Port Laredo rounds out the top 10.