The International Air Transport Association’s (Iata’s) data for global air freight markets shows that full-year demand for air cargo increased by 6.9% in 2021, compared with 2019 (pre-Covid-19 levels) and 18.7% compared with 2020 following a strong performance in December 2021.
This was the second biggest improvement in year-on-year demand since Iata began monitoring cargo performance in 1990, outpacing the 9.8% rise in global goods trade by 8.9 percentage points.
As comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of Covid-19, unless otherwise noted, all comparisons in Iata’s data are to 2019 which followed a normal demand pattern.
Global demand in 2021, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs), was up 6.9 % compared with 2019 (7.4% for international operations).
Capacity in 2021, measured in available cargo tonne-kilometres (ACTKs), was 10.9% below 2019 (12.8% for international operations). Capacity remains constrained with bottlenecks at key hubs, Iata notes.
It says improvements were demonstrated in December. Global demand was 8.9% above 2019 levels (9.4% for international operations).
This was a significant improvement from the 3.9% increase in November and the best performance since April 2021 (11.4%), Iata highlights.
Global capacity was 4.7% below 2019 levels (‑6.5% for international operations).
The lack of available capacity contributed to increased yields and revenues, providing support to airlines and some long-haul passenger services in the face of collapsed passenger revenues.
In December 2021, rates were almost 150% above 2019 levels.
Economic conditions continue to support air cargo growth, Iata points out.
Global goods trade rose 7.7% in November (latest month of data), compared with pre-crisis levels. Global industrial production was up 4% over the same period.
The inventory-to-sales ratio remains low. This is positive for air cargo as manufacturers turn to air cargo to rapidly meet demand, Iata indicates.
It notes that the cost-competitiveness of air cargo relative to that of sea-container shipping remains favourable.
The recent surge in Covid-19 cases in many advanced economies has created strong demand for personal protective equipment shipments, which are usually carried by air, Iata says.
Supply chain issues that slowed the pace of growth in November remain as headwinds. These include labour shortages, partly owing to employees being in quarantine, insufficient storage space at some airports and processing backlogs that continue to put pressure on supply chains.
Moreover, the December global Supplier Delivery Time Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) was at 38.
While values below 50 are normally favourable for air cargo, in current conditions it points to delivery times lengthening because of supply bottlenecks, Iata points out.
“Air cargo had a stellar year in 2021. For many airlines, it provided a vital source of revenue as passenger demand remained in the doldrums due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
"Growth opportunities, however, were lost due to the pressures of labour shortages and constraints across the logistics system. Overall, economic conditions do point towards a strong 2022,” says Iata director-general Willie Walsh.
Strong variations were evident in the regional performance of air cargo in 2021 compared with 2019.
North American carriers were the strongest performers, reporting a yearly increase in international demand of 20.2%.
Middle East and African carriers also reported double-digit growth in international demand in 2021 (10.6% and 11.3%, respectively) compared with 2019.
Asia-Pacific and European carriers saw international demand rise 3.6% in 2021 compared with 2019.
Lastly, Latin American carriers were the only ones to record a contraction in international demand of 15.2% compared with 2019.
African airlines saw international demand grow 11.3% in 2021 compared with 2019 and a fall in international capacity of 14.6%.
Growth in the region has been dynamic for most of the year, driven by the strength of the Africa-Asia route. In December, international demand grew by 7.6% year-on-year and international capacity fell 19.4%.