International Air Freight Nears a Turning Point

Dec. 2, 2010
Although freight volumes were up in October, overall freight volumes have declined by 5% since May

International air traffic results for October showed a 10.1% year-on-year increase in passenger demand and a 14.4% year-on-year increase for international freight, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“As we approach the end of 2010, growth is returning to a more normal pattern,” explains Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO. “Passenger demand is 5% above pre-crisis levels of early 2008, while freight is 1% above. Where we go from here is dependant on developments in the global economy. The US is spending more to boost its economy. Asia outside of Japan is barreling forward with high-speed growth. And Europe is tightening its belt as its currency crisis continues. The picture going forward is anything but clear, but for the time being, the recovery seems to be strengthening.”

Freight appears to be at a turning point. Since May, freight volumes have declined by 5%. October saw an end to the decline in freight with a slight uptick. “But a single month does not make a trend. And it remains to be seen if this is the stabilization in freight volumes or the start of an upward trend,” says Bisignani.

Improvements in demand are being met by a cautious approach to capacity expansion. Over the first 10 months of the year, passenger demand grew by 8.5%, with a capacity expansion of 4.0%. A cargo capacity expansion of 9.2% was well below the demand increase of 24%. Forward schedules indicate a continuation of this trend, with a 7.5% passenger capacity increase planned for the half-year scheduling period beginning at the end of October.

International Cargo Demand
The 14.4% year-on-year increase in freight traffic for October was marginally weaker than the 15.5% recorded in September. Nonetheless, international freight volumes actually improved slightly from its September level on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Asia-Pacific airlines reported a 14.9% year-on-year increase in international freight demand, down from the 16.2% recorded in September. October’s growth translates to an impressive 22% annualized growth rate for the region’s carriers, reflecting the strong economic recovery particularly in China and India. With a 44% share of total freight traffic, the growth experienced by Asia-Pacific airlines played a large role in the uptick seen in overall industry freight volumes during October.

European airlines recorded a 12.1% year-on-year demand increase in October. North American carriers saw a slightly larger improvement of 12.2%. For both regions, October freight volumes represented a 6% improvement on freight volumes carried in December 2009. Relative weakness in the Euro and dollar is helping export activity and boosting freight traffic. Even so, traffic remains 12% below pre-recession levels of early 2008 for European airlines and just 2% higher in North America.

“We are ending 2010 in much better shape than we were just 12 months ago. Airlines have turned losses into profit—albeit tiny. Despite the economic uncertainties people continue to fly. Airlines appear to be managing capacity in the upturn with a good deal of prudence. And cost control continues to be a main theme for airlines everywhere,” says Bisignani.

“Not all in the supply chain have the same courage to change,” he adds. “We have been waiting decades for the efficiency of a Single European Sky. Average air traffic management costs per flight in Europe are EUR 771, compared to EUR 440 in the US. This is a EUR 5.0 billion competitive disadvantage for Europe that affects everybody that flies or ships goods by air. Reluctance to change continues to put the program at risk. It is extremely disappointing to see some European state governments refusing to implement the 4.5% cost reduction target for 2012-14 agreed by the independent Performance Review Board,” says Bisignani.

“This is no hardship. With inflation expected to be 1.6-2.0% and with traffic growth of 3.2%, this is achievable simply by containing costs. If Europe’s air traffic management community cannot see the need for change, I hope that Europe’s Transport Ministers will. I urge them to support the European Commission in building a more competitive Europe, driven by serious performance targets and with a modern cost-efficient approach to air traffic management that is the Single European Sky,” says Bisignani.