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For First Time, O’Hare Can Lay Claim To Being Nation’s Top Trade Gateway, Behind Medical, Tech Imports


For the first time, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport can lay claim to being the nation’s leading gateway for export-import trade, propelled by the one-two punch of the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war.

Buoyed by a surge of medical imports from Europe and cell phones and laptops from China, O’Hare jumped past both Port Laredo, which had ranked first in February, and the Port of Los Angeles, which had ranked No. 1 every month but two going back years if not decades.

O’Hare’s top ranking comes with an asterisk, however, though the impact of the trade war and the pandemic shine through nonetheless.

O’Hare’s total includes $1.08 billion in Canadian oil that arrives via pipeline — which the U.S. Census Bureau, which released the March data on Tuesday, includes in its total for the “Chicago port.” It does the same for a number of other ports, some as far away as Texas and Louisiana.

Exclude that $1.08 billion and the throne stays with Port Laredo, the primary gateway for U.S. trade with Mexico, now the United States’ top trade partner — thanks to the trade war’s impact on the Port of Los Angeles. That would also be a first — the first time any “port” other than the Port of Los Angeles has ranked first for two months in a row.

And there’s another first in the data: The Los Angeles port ranked fourth in the nation for the month of March, something that would have been unthinkable just three months ago and certainly before the trade war. It was also hobbled by so-called “blank sailings,” ships that had been scheduled to leave China but, during the lockdown, never did.

In addition to O’Hare and Laredo, it also trailed New York’s JFK International Airport.

The story shifts to the coronavirus pandemic when you look at O’Hare.

Two imports into O’Hare surged by more than $700 million, when compared to data from the previous March: the category that includes medicines in pill or single-dose form and the category that includes vaccines, plasma and other blood “fractions.”

Imports of medicine in single-dosage form more than doubled from Ireland, the top source, when compared to both last month and last March. A major pharmaceutical manufacturing hub, Ireland accounted for 41% of O’Hare’s imports. Imports from Singapore more than tripled and those from Italy, hit hard by the pandemic, more than doubled, when compared to February.

In the second category, which includes vaccines, plasma and other blood fractions, imports from Germany, which accounted for just under a quarter of the total, increased 70.4%. Those from Ireland increased better than 80%, from Japan another 35.77% and those from Belgium more than tripled in value.

More than $1 billion of the $1.8 billion in this category that flew into O’Hare were immunological products.

O’Hare ranks first among the nation’s more than 450 airports, seaports and border crossings for both imports in the plasma and vaccine category as well as the single-dose medicine category.

At the same time, O’Hare’s imports of cell phones and laptops — overwhelmingly assembled in China, the airport’s largest trade partner — also surged in March when compared the total from the previous month. February included both the end of Chinese New Year celebrations, which crimped exports to the world, and then the impact on manufacturing of the coronarivus outbreak in Wuhan.

Cell phone imports in March jumped $700.41 million from February, though were down from the previous March, while the category dominated by laptops increased $642.38 million from February, but only slightly from the previous March.

For the month of March, O’Hare’s total trade — including the oil imports — was $19.38 billion. Port Laredo stood at $18.88 billion, JFK at $17.06 billion and wethe Port of Los Angeles at $16.31 billion.

For O’Hare, that’s a 34.33% increase over February and a 10.39% increase over the previous March. For Port Laredo, the same numbers are 1.57% and a decline of 6%. At JFK, it was a 13.78% increase from February and a 3.71% increase over the previous March. At the Port of Los Angeles, it was a decline of 5.17% and 17.08%.

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