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Air Cargo Demand Up 9% in February Compared to Pre-Covid Levels

Air cargo demand in February continued to outperform pre-Covid levels, with global demand up 9 percent compared to February 2019, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported Wednesday.

IATA said since comparisons between February 2021 and 2020 results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of the onset of the global pandemic in Asia, its report made comparisons to February 2019, which followed a more normal demand pattern.

Demand in February also showed strong month-on-month growth, with volume increasing 1.5 percent from January and marking a return to 2018 levels prior to the United States-China trade war.

The recovery in global capacity stalled due to new capacity cuts on the passenger side, as governments tightened travel restrictions over the recent spike in Covid cases. Capacity shrank 14.9 percent compared to February 2019.

Air cargo demand is not just recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, it is growing,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s new director general, said. “With demand…above pre-crisis levels, one of the main challenges for air cargo is finding sufficient capacity. This makes cargo yields a bright spot in an otherwise bleak industry situation. It also highlights the need for clarity on government plans for a safe industry restart. Understanding how passenger demand could recover will indicate how much belly capacity will be available for air cargo. Being able to efficiently plan that into air cargo operations will be a key element for overall recovery.”

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All regions except for Latin America saw an improvement in air cargo demand compared to pre-Covid levels, with North America and Africa were the strongest performers.

Asia-Pacific airlines saw demand for international air cargo rise 10.5 percent in February compared to the same month in 2019.

“As the main global manufacturing hub, the region has benefited from the pickup in economic activity,” IATA said. “Demand in the majority of the region’s key international trade lanes has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels.”

Capacity remained constrained in the region, down 23.6 percent versus February 2019.

North American carriers posted a 17.4 percent increase in demand in the month compared to February 2019. Economic activity in the U.S. continues to recover, supported by the rising demand for e-commerce amid lockdown restrictions, the report stated. Demand grew 39 percent on the Asia-North America route from February 2019.

“The business environment for air cargo remains supportive,” IATA said. “The $1,400 stimulus checks to U.S. households will likely drive further growth in e-commerce and the level of inventories remains relatively low compared to sales volumes. Historically, this has meant that businesses had to quickly re-stock, for which they also used air cargo.”

International capacity in the region grew 4.4 percent in February compared to 2019.

European carriers posted a 4.7 percent gain in demand in February compared to same month in 2019. Cargo demand was largely unaffected by the new lockdowns in Europe and the operating conditions remain supportive for air cargo, the report noted. Capacity decreased 12.5 percent.

Middle Eastern carriers saw an 8.8 percent rise in international cargo volume in February versus February 2019. Of the region’s key international routes, Middle East-Asia and Middle East-North America have provided the most significant support, IATA said. February capacity was down 14.9 percent.

Latin American carriers reported a 20.5 percent decline in international cargo volume in February compared to the 2019 period. Drivers of air cargo demand in Latin America remain relatively less supportive than in the other regions, the report noted. Weakness within the Central and South America markets, which dropped around 40 percent compared to February 2019, continued to outweigh the full recovery seen on North-Central America routes, which saw levels increase 10 percent compared to February 2019, IATA said. International capacity decreased 43 percent from February 2019.

African airlines’ cargo demand in February jumped 44.2 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. February international capacity grew by 9.8 percent compared to February 2019.