Global airfreight FTKs rebound, but soft demand may continue

IATA’s latest market analysis for April revealed a marked shift from the first quarter of 2016, with growth in freight tonne kilometers (FTKs), up 3.2 percent, year-over-year, the fastest expansion recorded in a 12-month span, based on data collected from IATA carriers.

All markets, with the exception of Latin America, showed growth in April. Even though positive results for the month were expected – especially on the trans-Pacific trade lanes, as the 2015 West Coast port disruptions began to fall out of annual comparisons – April’s figures beat analysts’ expectations.

Despite a relatively strong April, the organization still expects that “soft underlying demand” will make for a disappointing year overall. World trade and export demand are two indicators closely linked with FTK growth, and neither bode well for FTK growth in the coming months, IATA said. During the first quarter of 2016, world trade volumes declined, the first contractionary quarter since the 2008-2009 recession, which follows a recently revised-down world trade growth forecast from the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, the export orders component of the April global Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) continued to trend downward for the third consecutive month.

Another reason for caution continues to be the persistency of capacity expansion (measured in AFTKs) to outpace market growth, preventing yields from recovering. AFTKs rose by 6.6 percent, more than double FTK growth during the same period. As a result, industry-wide load factors were down 1.4 percent, compared to April 2015, IATA found.

Returning to a market-by-market analysis for the month of April, the Middle East and Europe posted the highest gains with 7.9 percent and 6.2 percent growth, respectively. For Europe, these figures represent the fastest growth since November 2012, as the region’s recovery from recession accelerated. Unlike the global PMI, responses from German purchasing managers was slightly more bullish. Despite a return to positive territory however, Europe’s airfreight market has still barely returned to pre-recession rates, with the total number of FTKs only 1.5 percent higher than they were during the first half of 2011. While FTKs carried by Middle Eastern airlines continue to increase faster than any other market, the rate of network expansion – and, as a result, traffic growth – have both slowed. Double-digit rates were the norm for Middle-Eastern carriers most months from 2009 onwards, but appear to be nearing their peak.

North American carriers also posted solid growth in April, up 2.9 percent; closely linked Asian FTKs however, showed more modest growth of 0.1 percent. Although U.S. export demand has fallen in recent months, imports remain robust and should enable persistent, but modest airfreight market growth. Airfreight market expansion in the Asia Pacific region continues to face “headwinds from the weak trade backdrop in the region,” as export growth stagnates.

Finally, Latin America, and to a lesser-extent, Africa went against the trend with year-over-year contractions measured in April.  With the latest 6.6 percent drop in FTKs, international market traffic has reached a six-year low in Latin America, down nearly 14 percent from the market’s peak in late 2014. IATA says the drop reflects “challenging economic conditions in the continent (not least Brazil.)” International AFTKs carried by African airlines meanwhile dipped 0.1 percent, despite significant capacity expansion of more than 25 percent as Ethiopian Airways continued to add long-haul routes operated by widebody aircraft.

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