Air cargo booming but international travel almost grounded

May 05, 2021
air cargo
Photo: Alexandr Markin/Wikimedia Commons.

Air cargo is booming, domestic air travel is surging but international travel is almost grounded.

That is the airline industry report card for March according to The International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Yesterday IATA said that air cargo demand continues to outperform pre-COVID levels with demand up 4.4 percent on the year-ago period with March demand reaching the highest level ever recorded.

That record came despite global capacity, measured in available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs), 11.7 percent below March 2019 due to the ongoing grounding of passenger aircraft.

IATA says airlines continue to use dedicated freighters to plug the lack of available belly-capacity on passenger planes with international capacity from dedicated freighters up 20.6 percent in March compared to the same month in 2019.

Belly-cargo capacity on passenger aircraft was down by 38.4 percent.

IATA said that global trade rose 0.3 percent in February – the ninth consecutive monthly increase and the longest continuous growth in more than two decades.

Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general said “air cargo continues to be the bright spot for aviation and airlines are taking all measures to find the needed capacity.”

On the passenger front, IATA said that while passenger traffic for March 2021 was below the year-ago period it rose compared to the prior month.

Total demand for air travel in March 2021 (measured in revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) was down 67.2 percent compared to March 2019.

That, however, is a sharp improvement over the 74.9 percent decline recorded in February 2021 compared to the year-ago month.

IATA says the better performance was driven by gains in domestic markets, particularly China.

International passenger demand in March was 87.8 percent below March 2019, a very small improvement from the 89.0 percent decline recorded in February 2021 versus two years ago.

Domestic demand was down 32.3 percent versus pre-crisis levels (March 2019), greatly improved over February 2021, when domestic traffic was down 51.2 percent versus the year-ago month.

All markets, except Brazil and India, showed improvement compared to February 2021.

“The positive momentum we saw in some key domestic markets in March is an indication of the strong recovery we are anticipating in international markets as travel restrictions are lifted.

“People want and need to fly and we can be optimistic that they will do so when restrictions are removed,” Mr. Walsh said.

In a note of caution, Mr. Walsh said that “the emergence of new COVID-19 variants and rising cases in some countries are behind governments’ reluctance to lift travel restrictions and quarantine.”

“However, we are beginning to see positive developments, such as the recent announcement by European Commission President von der Leyen that vaccinated travelers from the US will be allowed to enter the EU.

“At least 24 countries have already said they will welcome vaccinated travelers,” Mr Walsh said.