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Air cargo demand reaches all time high in March 2021


Air cargo demand continued to outperform pre-COVID levels (March 2019) with demand up 4.4%

  • March demand reached the highest level recorded since the series began in 1990
  • Weaker performance by Asia-Pacific and African carriers contributed to softer growth in March
  • Global capacity, measured in available cargo ton-kilometers (ACTKs), continued to recover in March

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released March 2021 data for global air cargo markets showing that air cargo demand continued to outperform pre-COVID levels (March 2019) with demand up 4.4%. March demand reached the highest level recorded since the series began in 1990. Month-on-month demand also increased albeit at a slower pace than the previous month with volumes up 0.4% in March over February 2021 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 March 2019 which followed a normal demand pattern.

  • Global demand, measured in cargo ton-kilometers (CTKs), was up 4.4% compared to March 2019 and 0.4% compared to February 2021. This was a slower rate of growth than the previous month, which saw demand increase 9.2% compared to February 2019. A weaker performance by Asia-Pacific and African carriers compared to February contributed to softer growth in March.
  • Global capacity, measured in available cargo ton-kilometers (ACTKs), 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. 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 of passenger aircraft dropped by 38.4%.
  • Underlying economic conditions remain supportive for air cargo:
  • This is evidenced in the new export orders component of the manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) which stood at 53.4 in March. Results above 50 indicate manufacturing growth versus the prior month.
  • Demand for exports grew broadly in March. This was concentrated in developed countries during January and February.
  • Delivery times for manufactured goods are increasing which normally indicates increased demand for air cargo in efforts to reduce shipping time.
  • Global trade rose 0.3% in February – the ninth consecutive monthly increase and the longest continuous growth in more than two decades.

“Air cargo continues to be the bright spot for aviation. 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. 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 digitalization,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.



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