International Air Transport Association director general and CEO Tony Tyler dubbed 2011 “a year of contrasts,” in the group’s annual traffic report issued last week, as worldwide airline passenger demand last year rose 5.9 percent and cargo markets contracted by 0.7 percent for the year. Meanwhile, growth in demand lagged the 6.3-percent capacity increases among passenger airlines and the 4.1-percent capacity rise among cargo carriers, resulting in downward pressure on load factors. Passenger load factors for 2011 averaged 78.1 percent, compared with 78.3 percent in 2010, while the freight load factor dropped more than two points, from 48.1 percent in 2010 to just 45.9 percent last year.
“Given the weak conditions in Western economies the passenger market held up well in 2011,” said Tyler. “Healthy passenger growth, primarily in the first half of the year, was offset by a declining cargo market. Optimism in China contrasted with gloom in Europe. Ironically, the weak euro supported business travel demand. But Europe’s primarily ‘tax and restrict’ approach to aviation policy left the continent’s carriers with the weakest profitability among the industry’s major regions. Cautious improving business confidence is good news. But 2012 is still going to be a tough year.”
Passenger demand for December rose 5.4 percent compared with the same month in 2010. However, growth in demand since mid-year has clearly slowed, as travel markets react to the declines in confidence that weakened cargo in the second half of 2011, said IATA.
In fact, although international air travel rose 6.9 percent last year, that figure reflects 6.2-percent growth between February and July, while between September and December the industry saw only a 1.2-percent gain. Meanwhile, international capacity climbed 8.2 percent, pushing down the passenger load factor to 77.4 percent.
Last year the highest growth rates came from Latin America, which posted a 10.2-percent rise in demand compared with 2010. European carriers posted the second highest growth rates, at 9.5 percent, while capacity climbed 10.2 percent, resulting in a load factor of 78.9 percent. North American carriers continued their prudent approach to capacity management, registering the highest load factors for both the year (80.7 percent) and the month of December (80.5 percent).
In contrast to North America, Asia-Pacific carriers experienced the widest traffic/capacity gap for the year, registering an annual increase in traffic of just 4.1 percent versus a 6.4-percent climb in capacity. IATA attributed a significant part of the “slowdown” to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the impact of which it said should prove temporary.