Air cargo demand: has it reached its peak or does it have room to grow?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made its impact felt the world over, including on the global aviation market. But air cargo has remained one of the few bright spots during the health crisis. 

While coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll on passenger air travel, the demand for air cargo has been rising. This begs the question — has air cargo growth reached its peak or does it have room to grow further?

The air cargo market: from the global financial crisis to the pandemic

An analysis of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) yearly air freight data from 2008 to 2019 suggests that the industry has had to weather two major challenges during that time — the global financial crisis (GFC) and US-China trade tensions.

Towards the end of 2008 and throughout 2009, the air cargo industry saw a dramatic downturn in demand, reflecting the global drop-off in production and reduced spending in the wake of the GFC. 

The global aviation market, including air freight, experienced real signs of recovery only four years after the GFC hit the aviation industry. Looking at the past decade, from 2012 until 2018, the air freight market grew at a consistent pace. However, it is worth noting that despite the consistent growth, the market was still feeling negative post-crisis effects from the GFC.

“While freight volumes initially bounced back strongly after the GFC, the disappointing growth experience thereafter means that they are still marginally below their pre-crisis trend level to this day,” read IATA’s statement written in 2018. “The key point is that it has taken a long time for the industry to recover from the GFC, and this has had a big impact on activity and revenues.”

After six years of reduced growth, air freight volumes began to experience a decline once again due to trade war tensions between the United States and China. Full-year results of IATA’s global air freight analysis showed that 2019 was the worst year since the GFC.

Former IATA director and chief executive, Alexandre de Juniac, described the situation like this: “The impact of the US-China trade war on air freight volumes was the clearest yet in August. Not since the global financial crisis in 2008 has demand fallen for 10 consecutive months. This is deeply concerning.”

In 2019, air freight demand, measured in cargo tonne kilometers (CTKs), fell by 3.3% compared to 2018. It was the first year that cargo volumes had declined since 2012, and “the weakest overall annual performance since air freight markets dropped 9.7% in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis”, according to the IATA.

At the end of 2019, de Juniac predicted that “2020 will be another challenging year for air cargo business” because of COVID-19. 

Growth factors: air cargo demand during the pandemic

In addition to economic factors, a range of issues beyond cyclical trends influence the growth of air cargo markets. During COVID-19, as flying operations became almost solely devoted to cargo and the skies fell quiet, freight operators have been vital partners in delivering medical equipment and in keeping global supply chains functioning for time-sensitive materials. 

According to Boeing’s World Air Cargo Forecast 2020-2039 report, “Urgent demand for medical supplies led to a spike in yields to high levels in the second quarter 2020. With these market conditions, freighter operators have been in a unique position to meet market demands that require a high level of speed, reliability and security, as only air cargo can do.”

In other words, cargo carriers were given a chance to help in an effort to distribute billions of coronavirus vaccines as well as personal protective equipment (PPE). However, with large distribution of vital medical supplies during the pandemic, e-commerce has also been one of the key sectors that helped to increase air cargo demand over the course of the pandemic.

Several reports pointed to e-commerce market as one of the main forces for air cargo growth. According to Boeing, e-commerce, which was already growing at “double-digit rates” prior to COVID, has accelerated its impact on the air cargo market. Boeing said that the “shift to more online work and shopping were positives for growth in air cargo”.

The global e-commerce logistics market grew by 27.3% in 2020 and is expected to reach a compound annual growth of 8.6% by 2025, according to the supply chain consultant Transport Intelligence’s (Ti) Global e-commerce Logistics 2021 report

Taking into account all the medical equipment as well as the rise in e-commerce, demand for air cargo services reached record highs in 2021.

The IATA released March 2021 data for global air cargo markets showing that air freight demand continued to outperform pre-pandemic levels with demand up 4.4%. March 2021 demand reached the highest level since the series began in 1990.

“Air cargo continues to be the bright spot for aviation. 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,” IATA’s chief executive Willie Walsh said in May 2021. 

The latest air cargo market analysis released by IATA for June 2021 showed that the “industry-wide cargo tonne-kilometres rose by 9.9% in June 2021 compared to the same month in 2019”, signaling a stable and growing environment for the air cargo market. 

Will air cargo continue with its post-pandemic growth?

Despite the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, the current environment for air cargo looks good. Multiple forecasts predict a positive outlook for air cargo markets and believe they are going to improve.

Boeing, in its World Air Cargo Forecast 2020-2039, anticipated that air freight traffic would grow 4.1% per year over the next 20 years, adding that the “overall, world air cargo traffic will more than double over the next 20 years, expanding from 264 billion RTKs in 2019 to 578 billion RTKs in 2039”.

In air cargo monthly analysis dated June 2021, IATA stated that the air cargo market’s “further growth is likely ahead”.

In order to meet the growing demand for air cargo, some of the industry’s players have announced new strategies. 

On July 29, 2021, the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus said that its board had approved the development of a freighter version of the Airbus A350 passenger aircraft.

“Furthermore and following Board approval, we are enhancing our product line with an A350 freighter derivative, responding to customer feedback for increased competition and efficiency in this market segment,” said Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, said the airline was keen to add more freighters to its fleet. 

“We are really hungry for more freighters. Unfortunately, Dave [Boeing CEO] cannot produce more Boeing 777X freighters. The earliest they can give us [the aircraft] is in 2023,” Al Baker said during an interview on Bloomberg TV on June 22, 2021. “We are very keen to be a launch customer, be it for the Airbus A350 or Boeing 777X freighters.”


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