Weak global trade drags down air cargo

airfreightservices-700x467HONG KONG — Asia’s air cargo markets weakened in the third quarter, hampered by slowing global trade and tough comparisons with last year, with the industry still holding thumbs for a pre-Christmas bump to push up full-year traffic figures.

“The region’s carriers experienced a 1.1 percent year-over-year decline in air cargo demand during the third quarter of 2015, after registering a 4.5 percent increase during the first half of the year. As a result, air cargo growth for the first nine months narrowed to 2.6 percent compared to the same period last year,” said Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines.

But the comparisons with last year were significantly impacted by the U.S. West Coast labor dispute that forced shippers to air freight cargo across the Pacific that would usually have travelled by ocean. Most of the growth in 2014 occurred in the second half and continued until March before beginning to slow, and the rest of the year has been subdued.

The International Air Transport Association’s cargo results for September have not yet been released, but its latest business confidence survey of airline CFOs and heads of cargo found that the declining trend of the third quarter was expected to continue.

“Growth in cargo volumes is now broadly flat on the year ago period, which is consistent with FTK data and the lackluster demand backdrop,” the IATA survey reported. “The growth outlook is positive for both passenger and cargo businesses, but not at the strong pace that was expected earlier in the year. This likely reflects concerns over weakness in the global business environment and emerging market economies.”

This was in line with the AAPA outlook. “The operating environment for Asian airlines remains challenging, complicated by the effects of slowing economic growth in emerging markets, and associated exchange rate volatility,” Herdman said. “Overall, Asia Pacific airlines’ profitability is showing modest improvement in an intensely competitive market.”

September cargo figures are beginning to come in and the picture is hardly positive. According to the AAPA, demand in freight tonne kilometer terms in September barely matched the same month last year. After accounting for a 2.3 percent increase in offered freight capacity, the average international freight load factor fell by 1.5 percentage points to 62.7 percent for the month.

Air freight volume at Hong Kong International Airport rose by a marginal 1 percent in September compared to the same month last year, as the world’s largest air cargo airport handled a total 368,000 tons of cargo, according to the authority.

The growth, although weak, reversed a trend of declining year-over-year growth at the airport and was generated by a 3 percent increase in cargo exports to North America and Australasia during the month. For the first nine months, HKIA handled 3.2 million tons of cargo, a meager 0.2 percent growth over the same period last year.

That export surge to North America was given a large boost by Cathay Pacific and sister carrier Dragonair, which reported a 2.8 percent increase in cargo and mail carried during September, handling 151,358 tons during the month.

Mark Sutch, Cathay Pacific general manager cargo sales and marketing, said demand in the cargo markets began to climb moving into September, but it was more of a trickle than a surge.

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