Air Cargo Traffic Will Gradually Grow, Forecasts Say

 - March 18, 2013, 2:20 PM
An Atlas Air Boeing 747-400F accepts a load of cargo. Forecasts call for the air cargo industry to see a revival in the coming years. (Photo: Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings)

Air cargo traffic declined in the U.S. and internationally in 2012, but forecasts call for gradual improvement in the coming years.

In its latest 20-year aerospace forecast, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said U.S. air carriers flew 36.4 billion revenue ton miles (RTMs) last year, down 2.4 percent from the previous year. The European debt crisis and China’s slowing economic growth affected international cargo RTMs, which declined by 3.6 percent to 24.3 billion. Domestic cargo RTMs remained essentially flat, increasing by 0.1 percent to 12 billion.

The air cargo industry has experienced significant structural changes, including security regulations imposed by the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration; the maturation of the domestic express market; a shift from air transportation to trucks and other modes; the U.S. Postal Service’s use of all-cargo carriers to transport mail; and the increased use by consumers of electronic substitutes to mail.

The FAA predicts that total RTMs will inch up by 0.4 percent this year, then increase at an annual average rate of 4.6 percent for the balance of the forecast period. As world trade growth resumes, international RTMs will increase by 1.1 percent this year and by 5.7 percent a year on average through 2033, based on projected growth in world GDP. The agency predicts that domestic cargo RTMs will decline by 0.9 percent this year, then increase by an average of 0.8 percent annually.

All-cargo carriers flew 79.2 percent of the total RTMs last year. Cargo carriers’ revenue improved by 0.5 percent following two years of strengthening demand for air cargo services as the global financial crisis dissipated, the FAA said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said worldwide air cargo demand dropped 2 percent last year. However, the association noted that air-freight volumes improved in the last months of 2012, with markets connected to the Far East experiencing the most growth.

In its first-quarter 2013 outlook, the IATA said that economic indicators point to a modest upturn. “Airline cargo businesses experienced better operating conditions over recent months, leading to an increase in air-freight volumes, stabilization in yields and a more optimistic outlook for 2013,” the association said. “Although world trade growth remains slow and jet fuel prices are high, the demand environment and drivers are showing positive signs.”