GLOBAL air cargo demand has continued to be higher than pre-COVID levels, according to the latest air cargo market data from the International Air Transport Association. 

Air cargo demand in March 2021 was up 4.4% on the same month last year, measured in tonne-kilometres. This was a slower rate than the previous month, which saw demand increase 9.2% when compared with February 2020. 

Month-on-month air cargo demand also increased, with volumes up 0.4% in March over February levels.  

Global capacity, measured in available cargo tonne-kilometres, continued to recover in March, up 5.6% compared to the previous month. 

Despite this, capacity remans 11.7% below pre-COVID-19 levels (March 2019) due to the ongoing grounding of passenger aircraft.

Freighter aircraft

Airlines continue to use dedicated freighters to plug the lack of available belly-capacity. International capacity from dedicated freighters rose 20.6% in March 2021 compared to the same month in 2019 and belly-cargo capacity dropped by 38.4%. 

IATA director general Willie Walsh said air cargo continues to be the bright spot for aviation. 

“Air cargo demand reached an all-time high in March, up 4.4% compared to pre-COVID levels (March 2019). And airlines are taking all measures to find the needed capacity,” he said. 

“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 digitalisation.” 

Air cargo demand by region 

Asia-Pacific airlines saw demand for international air cargo drop 0.3% in March 2021, compared with the same month in 2019. 

IATA said the slight weakness in performance compared to the previous month was seen on most of the trade lanes connected with Asia. International capacity remained constrained in the region, down 20.7% versus March 2019. The region’s airlines reported the highest international load factor at 78.4%. 

North American carriers posted a 14.5% increase in international demand in March compared with March 2019. 

the association said this strong performance reflects the strength of the economic recovery in the US. In Q1, US GDP rose by 6.4% in annualised terms, up from 4.3% in Q4 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 by 1.8% compared with March 2019. 

European carriers posted a 0.7% increase in demand in March compared with the same month in 2019. 

Middle Eastern carriers posted a 9.2% rise in international cargo volumes in March 2021 versus March 2019.  

Latin American carriers reported a decline of 23.6% in international cargo volumes in March compared with the 2019 period; this was the worst performance of all regions. Drivers of air cargo demand in Latin America remain relatively less supportive than in the other regions.  

African airlines’ cargo demand in March increased 24.6% 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 decreased by 2.1% compared to March 2019.