Air cargo demand back to pre-Covid levels

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by Emily Atkins

Global air cargo demand returned to pre-Covid levels for the first time since the onset of the pandemic crisis.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released data also showing that January 2021 demand grew strongly over December 2020 levels.

Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs), was up 1.1. percent compared to January 2019 and up three percent compared to December 2020. All regions saw month-on-month improvement in air cargo demand, and North America and Africa were the strongest performers.

The recovery in global capacity, measured in available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs), was reversed, as a result of new capacity cuts on the passenger side. Capacity shrank 19.5 percent compared to January 2019 and fell five percent compared to December 2020, the first monthly decline since April 2020.

In a media briefing on March 2, Brian Pearce, IATA’s chief economist noted that for cargo airlines the uptick in demand is “good news”, but “unfortunately, for the majority, it’s not enough to offset the loss in passenger traffic.”

Manufacturing recovery

Conditions in the manufacturing sector remain robust with the global manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) at 53.5 in January. Results above 50 indicate manufacturing growth versus the prior month.

The new export orders component of the manufacturing PMI – a leading indicator of air cargo demand– continued to point to further CTK improvement. However, the performance of the metric was less robust compared with Q42020 as Covid-19 resurgence negatively impacted export business in emerging markets.

The level of inventories remains relatively low compared to sales volumes. Historically, this has meant that businesses had to quickly refill their stocks, for which they also used air cargo services.

“Air cargo traffic is back to pre-crisis levels and that is some much-needed good news for the global economy,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO.

“But while there is a strong demand to ship goods, our ability is capped by the shortage of belly capacity normally provided by passenger aircraft. That should be a sign to governments that they need to share their plans for restart so that the industry has clarity in terms of how soon more capacity can be brought online. In normal times, a third of world trade by value moves by air. This high value commerce is vital to helping restore Covid-damaged economies – not to mention the critical role air cargo is playing in distributing lifesaving vaccines that must continue for the foreseeable future.”

Pushing for a travel pass

This need for clarity from national governments is behind IATA’s continued pressure to establish the travel pass program that would enable a return to passenger travel. Nick Careen, the organization’s senior vice-president of airport, passenger, cargo and security, said in the media briefing health measures around the world are currently “a mess of inconsistency”, which is hindering the ability to travel.

IATA is “trying to solve an operational problem that’s about to become even worse as traffic resumes,” he said. That’s why the organization is pressing for a travel pass system that is interoperable, harmonious , based on standards, and mutually recognized.

Once that happens, air travel will be able to open up, allowing airlines to fly again, and alleviating some of the stress on cargo capacity as bellyhold space becomes available again.