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Global Air Cargo Demand Reached All-Time High in March

Global air cargo demand continued to outperform pre-Covid levels, with demand up 4.4 percent in March and reaching the highest level recorded since such data began being tracked in 1990, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

March month-on-month demand also increased, although at a slower pace than the previous month, with volumes up 0.4 percent in March over February levels, which saw demand increase 9.2 percent compared to February 2019, IATA reported on Tuesday. A weaker performance by Asia-Pacific and African carriers compared to February contributed to softer growth in March.

Since comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of Covid, comparisons in the report are to March 2019, which followed a normal demand pattern.

Global capacity continued to recover in March, rising 5.6 percent over the previous month. Despite this, capacity remains 11.7 percent below pre-pandemic levels due to the ongoing grounding of passenger aircraft. Airlines continue to use dedicated freighters to plug the lack of available belly-capacity, IATA noted. International capacity from dedicated freighters rose 20.6 percent in March 2021 compared to the same month in 2019 and belly-cargo capacity dropped by 38.4 percent.

Air cargo continues to be the bright spot for aviation,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said. “Demand reached an all-time high in March…and airlines are taking all measures to find the needed capacity. The crisis has shown that air cargo can meet fundamental challenges by adopting innovations quickly. That is how it is meeting growing demand even as much of the passenger fleet remains grounded. The sector needs to retain this momentum post-crisis to drive the sector’s long-term efficiency with digitalization.”

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Asia-Pacific airlines saw demand for international air cargo drop 0.3 percent in March compared to the same month in 2019. The slight weakness in performance compared to the previous month was seen on most of the trade lanes connected with Asia, IATA said. International capacity remained constrained in the region, down 20.7 percent versus March 2019.

North American carriers posted a 14.5 percent increase in demand in the month compared to March 2019.

“This strong performance reflects the strength of the economic recovery in the U.S.,” IATA said, noting that in the first quarter, U.S. gross domestic product rose 6.4 percent, up from 4.3 percent in the fourth quarter, “bringing the country’s economy close to pre-COVID levels. The business environment for air cargo remains supportive–the new export orders component of the PMI rose to its highest level since 2007. International capacity grew 1.8 percent compared with March 2019.”

European carriers posted a 0.7 percent hike in demand in March compared to the same month in 2019. Improved operating conditions and recovering export orders contributed to the positive performance. International capacity decreased 17 percent in the month versus March 2019.

Middle Eastern carriers posted a 9.2 percent rise in international cargo volume in March versus March 2019. Month-on-month, Middle East carriers posted the strongest growth of all regions, up 4.4 percent. Of the region’s key international routes, Middle East-North America and Middle East-Asia have provided the most significant support. International capacity in March was down 12.4 percent compared to the same month in 2019.

Latin American carriers reported a decline of 23.6 percent in international cargo volumes in March compared to the 2019 period, the worst performance of all regions. Drivers of air cargo demand in Latin America remain relatively less supportive than in the other regions, IATA said. International capacity decreased 46 percent compared with March 2019.

African airlines’ cargo demand in March increased 24.6 percent compared to the same month in 2019, the strongest of all regions. Robust expansion on the Asia-Africa trade lanes contributed to the strong growth. March international capacity fell 2.1 percent compared to March 2019.