2020 air cargo volume may drop 20%, IATA says

A Lufthansa plane gets loaded with cargo.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) next week will release data showing airfreight traffic fell 10% in February and is on track to be 15%-20% lower for the entire year than in 2019, Glyn Hughes, the global head of cargo, said in a briefing with reporters.

Most of the decline involved traffic to and from China, where massive quarantines shut down manufacturing and economic activity as authorities tried to contain the spread of the new coronavirus that has now reached pandemic proportions. For the global numbers to drop 10% suggests a much larger dive in air cargo volume for the Chinese market itself, Hughes said Wednesday.

Chinese production is expected to be near full capacity by the end of the month, but massive shutdowns in other parts of the world now mean there is little appetite for automotive, apparel and other goods commonly shipped by air.

Airlines are mostly busy shuttling critical medical supplies and foodstuffs.

Market research firm World ACD published its own figures showing a year-over-year drop in cargo volume of 3% for January and February, not adjusting for the fact there were 29 days in February this year.

Carriers made less money too, with yield decreasing about 5% and airlines losing 8% of revenues compared to the start of 2019. Airline losses are expected to be much greater in the coming months due to the global disruption of supply chains from the pandemic.

IATA on Tuesday estimated that airlines stand to lose up to $252 billion in passenger revenue this year.

In its bulletin, World ACD said some carriers are bucking the downward trend in business. In Europe, for example, one carrier saw a 42% increase in volume, it said. Big forwarders also experienced a range of performance. In Europe, the group lost 6.5% air volume, with a company that lost 23% of volume on one end and another that gained 9%.

The grounding of most international flights to China also eliminated cargo space that shippers rely on, driving rates for dedicated freighters to double and creating an unusual situation in which inbound yields to China were higher than in the other direction — a function of the shutdown in Chinese manufacturing and the influx of emergency medical supplies.

But data provided by Freight Investor Services, a freight derivatives broker, suggests Asia-Pacific prices may have peaked, with the trans-Atlantic market now the most volatile.

The TAC Index, which benchmarks current rates, shows that it now costs $2.74 per kilogram for a company to ship goods from Frankfurt, Germany, to North America, a 57% increase in the past week alone.The high airfreight rates are one reason passenger airlines are starting to deploy passenger aircraft into dedicated cargo service, even though they have a smaller payload than a full freighter.