January air cargo demand recovers to pre-Covid-19 levels: IATA

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released January 2021 data for global air cargo markets showing that air cargo demand returned to pre-Covid-19 levels (January 2019) for the first time since the onset of the crisis. January demand also showed strong month-to-month growth over December 2020 levels.

Because comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of Covid-19, unless otherwise noted all comparisons to follow are to January 2019 which followed a normal demand pattern.

Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs*), was up 1.1 per cent compared to January 2019 and +3 per cent 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 owing to new capacity cuts on the passenger side. Capacity shrank 19.5 per cent compared to January 2019 and fell 5 per cent compared to December 2020, the first monthly decline since April 2020.

The operating backdrop remains supportive for air cargo volumes. Conditions in the manufacturing sector remain robust despite new Covid-19 outbreaks that dragged down passenger demand. The global manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) was 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. Should this continue or expand to other markers, it could weigh on future air cargo growth.

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. 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-19 damaged economies—not to mention the critical role air cargo is playing in distributing lifesaving vaccines that must continue for the foreseeable future,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's director general and CEO.

1) % of industry RPKs in 2020    2) Change in load factor vs. the same month in 2019    3) Load Factor Level

January Regional Performance

Asia-Pacific airlines saw demand for international air cargo fall 3.2 per cent in January 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. This was an improvement from the 4 per cent fall in December 2020. International capacity remained constrained in the region, down 27 per cent versus January 2019, which was a deterioration compared to the 26.2 per cent year-over-year decline recorded in December. The region’s airlines reported the highest international load factor at 74 per cent. 

North American carriers posted an 8.5 per cent increase in international demand in January compared to January 2019, far surpassing the 4.4 per cent gain in December 2020 compared to December 2019. Economic activity in the US continues to recover and its January manufacturing PMIs reached a record-high, pointing to a supportive business environment for air cargo. International capacity fell by 8.5 per cent compared to January 2019. In December 2020, capacity was down 12.8 per cent versus the same month in 2019.

European carriers’ international cargo demand slipped 0.6 per cent in January compared to same month in 2019. This was an improvement from the 5.6% fall in December 2020 over the year-ago period. International capacity decreased 19.5 per cent, a deterioration from the 18.4 per cent year-to-year decline recorded for December.  

Middle Eastern carriers posted a 6 per cent rise in international cargo volumes in January versus January 2019, which was an acceleration over the 2.4 per cent year over year gain recorded in December compared to December 2019. Of the region’s key international routes, Middle East-Asia and Middle East-North America have provided the most significant support. January capacity was down 17.3 per cent compared to the same month in 2019. This was a slight reduction compared to the18.2 per cent decline recorded in December 2020 compared to the year-ago period.

Latin American carriers reported a decline of 16.1 per cent in international cargo volumes in January compared to the 2019 period, which was an improvement from the 19 per cent fall in December 2020 versus a year ago. Drivers of air cargo demand in Latin America remain relatively less supportive than in the other regions. International capacity decreased 37 per cent compared January 2019, largely unchanged from the 36.7 per cent year-over- year decline recorded in December 2020.

African airlines’ cargo demand soared 22.4 per cent compared to the same month in 2019, eclipsing the 6.3 per cent year-over-year increase for December 2020. Robust expansion on the Asia-Africa trade lanes contributed to the strong growth. January international capacity decreased by 9.1 per cent compared to January 2019, reduced compared to the 17.8 per cent capacity decline recorded in December 2020 versus December 2019.

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