IATA: Airfreight demand back to pre-Covid levels but capacity remains tight

The latest air cargo figures from IATA show that recent demand has outperformed pre-Covid levels — and volumes are now at levels seen prior to the US-China trade war.

The association said it compared figures from February 2021 with those in the same period of 2019 because “comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of Covid-19”.

In light of this, global airfreight demand in February 2021, measured in cargo tonne km (CTKs), was up 9% on February 2019 and was 1.5% higher than January 2021.

Meanwhile, global capacity, measured in available cargo tonne km (ACTKs), declined by 14.9% compared with February 2019.

Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said: “Air cargo demand is not just recovering from the Covid-19 crisis, it is growing. With demand at 9% above pre-crisis levels (February 2019), one of the main challenges for air cargo is finding sufficient capacity.

“This makes cargo yields a bright spot in an otherwise bleak industry situation. It also highlights the need for clarity on government plans for a safe industry restart. Understanding how passenger demand could recover will indicate how much belly capacity will be available for air cargo. Being able to efficiently plan that into air cargo operations will be a key element for overall recovery.”

IATA said the manufacturing sector, which is “robust” despite the recent spike in Covid-19 outbreaks, has contributed to the climb in air cargo demand.

The global manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) was at 53.9 in February — and results above 50 indicate manufacturing growth compared with the previous month.

In addition, supply chain disruptions and the resulting delivery delays have pushed many manufacturers to use air transport to speed up shipments and recover time lost in the production process.

Looking at regional performance in February 2021, North America and Africa were the strongest performers in terms of growth in airfreight demand. All regions except Latin America reported an improvement on pre-Covid levels.

Volumes carried by North America-based airlines were up 17.1% on February 2019. Capacity was up 1.9%.

“The region’s swift recovery has been supported by improving economic activity and the rising popularity of online shopping amidst lockdown restrictions,” IATA said.

It added: “The US inventory levels are well below the average since early-2021 which means that companies might prefer the speed of air cargo to refill their stocks.”

Africa-based carriers, which represent 2% of the world share, saw demand increase by 42.3% compared with February 2019. Capacity was up 6.6% on February 2019.

“The smaller Africa-Asia trade lanes were the main driver behind the region’s outperformance,” IATA said. However, it highlighted that due to the region’s small world share percentage, “even small changes in volumes result in outsized growth volatility”.

Europe-based airlines posted a 4.7% increase in volumes compared with February 2019. Capacity was down 13.1%.

“Although many European countries faced new lockdowns, the region’s manufacturing sector was largely unimpacted and remains supportive for air cargo,” IATA explained.

Meanwhile, demand for Asia Pacific-based airlines was up 7.1% in February 2021 versus the same period in 2019. Capacity was down 29.2%.

IATA said: “As the main global manufacturing hub, the region has been benefitting from the swift recovery of the global manufacturing sector and economic activity in general.”

Air cargo demand for Middle East-based airlines was up 8.7% in February compared with same period in 2019. Capacity was down 14.8%.

Volumes for Latin America-based airlines were 18.4% less than in February 2019. Capacity was down 37.8%. 

IATA said that weak Central and South America markets negatively impacted the recovery on North to Central America routes.

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