Airfreight Volumes Strengthen into 2021

The air cargo market ended 2020 on a high note, picking up steam again in December and setting the stage for a potential full recovery to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021 with little sign there will be a normal seasonal falloff, according to the latest industry data.

Global airfreight volumes rose 2.5% in December on a sequential basis, with the gap in year-over-over demand narrowing to minus 5% compared to the 37% contraction at the height of the global economic shutdown in April.

Particularly encouraging for cargo airlines and freight forwarders was the first positive year-over-year growth in weekly volumes in more than 12 months. Volumes increased 8% in the two weeks since Dec. 21, with a load factor of 65% for the week that ended Sunday — 13 points higher than the comparable period a year ago. Air shipments are being driven by manufacturing growth, e-commerce orders and new releases of COVID-19 vaccines.

The International Air Transport Association last month forecast air cargo traffic would return to pre-crisis levels early this year. That’s a sharp contrast to the passenger airline industry, which is not expected to fully bounce back for another three years.

For December, planes were 71% full with cargo on average. That is a high mark by historical standards as cargo volumes shook off an unexpected 1% dip in November — the first since the airfreight market began to recover in June — during what is considered the peak international shipping season. The stall in demand coincided with increasing spread of the COVID-19 virus and major lockdowns in Europe and other regions.

Volume in November was 13% below what it was in November 2019.

Many all-cargo companies continue to add incremental capacity, and passenger airlines also continue to offer cargo-only service with their otherwise empty passenger jets.

The extra aircraft and flights led to a 2% increase in overall capacity in December versus the prior month, but the shortage of space to move goods is still 21% less than a year ago because of the drastic decline in regular passenger flights.

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