Air cargo demand down on Omicron in Asia and war in Ukraine

by Emily Atkins

Global air cargo demand declined in March thanks to the effects of Covid-19’s Omicron variant in Asia and the Russia-Ukraine war.

According to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) March 2022 data global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs), fell 5.2 percent compared to March 2021.

Capacity was 1.2 percent above March 2021. While this is in positive territory, it is a significant decline from the 11.2 percent year-on-year increase in February. Asia and Europe experienced the largest drops in capacity.

War, rising costs and inflation

IATA says the war in Ukraine led to a drop in cargo capacity used to serve Europe as several airlines based in Russia and Ukraine were key cargo players. Sanctions against Russia also led to disruptions in manufacturing. And rising oil prices are having a negative economic impact, including raising costs for shipping.

New export orders, a leading indicator of cargo demand, are now shrinking in all markets except the US. The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) indicator tracking global new export orders fell to its lowest level since July 2020.

Global goods trade has continued to decline in 2022. China’s economy is growing more slowly because of Covid-19-related lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions have been amplified by the war in Ukraine.

General consumer price inflation for the G7 countries, which was at 6.3 percent year-on-year in February 2022, is the highest since 1982, and also contributes to the slowdown.

“Air cargo markets mirror global economic developments. In March, the trading environment took a turn for the worse. The combination of war in Ukraine and the spread of the Omicron variant in Asia have led to rising energy costs, exacerbated supply chain disruptions, and fed inflationary pressure,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.

“As a result, compared to a year ago, there are fewer goods being shipped – including by air. Peace in Ukraine and a shift in China’s Covid-19 policy would do much to ease the industry’s headwinds. As neither appears likely in the short-term, we can expect growing challenges for air cargo just as passenger markets are accelerating their recovery.”

Regional results

Asia-Pacific airlines saw their air cargo volumes decrease by 5.1 percent in March 2022 compared to the same month in 2021. Available capacity in the region fell 6.4 percent compared to March 2021, the largest drop of all regions. The zero-Covid policy in mainland China and Hong Kong is impacting performance.

In North America, carriers posted a 0.7 percent decrease in cargo volumes in March 2022 compared to March 2021. Demand in the Asia-North America market declined significantly, with seasonally adjusted volumes falling by 9.2 percent in March.  Capacity was up 6.7 percent compared to March 2021.

European carriers saw a 11.1 percent decrease in cargo volumes in March 2022 compared to the same month in 2021. This was the weakest of all regions. The intra-Europe market fell significantly, down 19.7 percent month on month.  This is attributable to the war in Ukraine. Labour shortages and lower manufacturing activity in Asia due to Omicron also affected demand. Capacity fell 4.9 percent in March 2022 compared to March 2021.

Carriers in the Middle East experienced a 9.7 percent year-on-year decrease in cargo volumes in March. Significant benefits from traffic being redirected to avoid flying over Russia failed to materialize. This is likely due to subdued demand overall. Capacity was up 5.3 percent compared to March 2021.

Latin American carriers reported an increase of 22.1 percent in cargo volumes in March 2022 compared to the 2021 period. This was the strongest performance of all regions. Some of the largest airlines in the region are benefitting from the end of bankruptcy protection. Capacity in March was up 34.9 percent compared to the same month in 2021.

African airlines saw cargo volumes increase by 3.1 percent in March 2022 compared to March 2021. Capacity was 8.7 percent above March 2021 levels.