Global air cargo markets reach pre-pandemic levels in January 2021

Following notable increases in air cargo demand towards the end of 2020 after poor performance throughout the year, the industry was able to reach pre-COVID-19 levels in January 2021.

IATA launches data information service for air cargo industry

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released January 2021 data for global air cargo markets which shows that air cargo demand returned to pre-COVID-19 levels (January 2019) for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. January 2021 demand also showed strong month-to-month growth over December 2020 levels

Because comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of COVID-19, unless otherwise noted, all comparisons to follow are to January 2019, which followed a normal demand pattern.

Global demand – measured in cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs) – was up by 1.1. per cent compared to January 2019, and three per cent compared to December 2020. All regions saw month-on-month improvements in air cargo demand, with North America and Africa being the strongest performers.

The recovery in global capacity – measured in available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs) – was reversed, owing to new capacity cuts on the passenger side. Capacity shrank by 19.5 per cent compared to January 2019 and fell by five per cent compared to December 2020, the first monthly decline since April 2020. 

The operating backdrop remains supportive for air cargo volumes:

  • Conditions in the manufacturing sector remain robust despite new COVID-19 outbreaks that dragged down passenger demand. The global manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) was at 53.5 in January 2021 – results above 50 indicate manufacturing growth versus the prior month
  • The new export orders component of the manufacturing PMI – a leading indicator of air cargo demand – continued to point to further CTK improvement. However, the performance of the metric was less robust compared with Q4 2020, as COVID-19 resurgence negatively impacted export business in emerging markets. Should this continue or expand to other markers, it could weigh on future air cargo growth
  • The level of inventories remains relatively low compared to sales volumes. Historically, this has meant that businesses had to quickly refill their stocks, for which they also used air cargo services.

“Air cargo traffic is back to pre-crisis levels, and that is some much-needed good news for the global economy. But, while there is a strong demand to ship goods, our ability is capped by the shortage of belly capacity that is normally provided by passenger aircraft. That should be a sign to governments that they need to share their plans for restart so that the industry has clarity in terms of how soon more capacity can be brought online. In normal times, a third of world trade by value moves by air. This high value commerce is vital to helping restore COVID-19-damaged economies — not to mention the critical role that air cargo is playing in distributing lifesaving vaccines that must continue for the foreseeable future,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA‘s Director General and CEO.

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