The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released data for global air freight markets showing that 2022 full-year demand for air cargo took a significant step back from 2021 levels but was close to 2019 performance.


Global full-year demand in 2022, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs), was down 8.0% compared to 2021 (-8.2% for international operations).


Compared to 2019, however, IATA noted that air cargo is almost back to the pre-pandemic level, only down 1.6% both globally and internationally.


For 2022, capacity — measured in available cargo tonne-kilometres (ACTKs) — was 3.0% above 2021 (+4.5% for international operations) as countries further eased pandemic restrictions and airlines rebuilt their networks.


Compared to 2019, capacity declined by 8.2% (-9.0% for international operations).


Another challenging year in 2023


"In the face of significant political and economic uncertainties, air cargo performance declined compared to the extraordinary levels of 2021. That brought air cargo demand to 1.6% below 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels," said Willie Walsh, IATA's director-general.


Despite this, Walsh noted that yields continue to thread above the 2019 level, and this should "provide some respite" to airlines as he forecasted 2023 to be another challenging year.


"The continuing measures by key governments to fight inflation by cooling economies are expected to result in a further decline in cargo volumes in 2023 to -5.6% compared to 2019. It will, however, take time for these measures to bite into cargo rates," the IATA chief said.


"So, the good news for air cargo is that average yields and total revenue for 2023 should remain well above what they were pre-pandemic. That should provide some respite in what is likely to be a challenging trading environment in the year ahead," Walsh added.


For December alone, IATA figures show that global demand was 15.3% below 2021 levels (-15.8% for international operations) as the month saw a "softening in performance."


10th month of consecutive cargo decline


This was the tenth consecutive monthly contraction compared to the 2021 performance, IATA said.


Last year also showed "mixed signals" with global new export orders — a leading indicator of cargo demand — staying at the same level since October. For major economies, new export orders are shrinking except in Germany, the US, and Japan, where they grew.  


In 2022, IATA said Asia-Pacific airlines posted an 8.8% decrease in demand in 2022 compared to 2021 and a capacity increase of 0.5%. Compared to 2019 (pre-COVID levels), demand was 7.8% below, and capacity was down 17.2%.


"In December, Asia-Pacific airlines recorded the worst performance of all regions, posting a 21.2% decrease in demand compared to 2021," IATA said, noting that capacity for that month also fell 3.9% as airlines in the region continue to be impacted by lower levels of trade and manufacturing activity and disruptions in supply chains due to China's rising COVID cases. 


North American carriers reported a 5.1% decrease in demand and a capacity increase of 4.2%. This was 13.7% up compared to 2019.


IATA said that European carriers posted the "worst year-on-year performance" of all regions, with an 11.5% decrease in demand year-on-year — although capacity increased by 0.5%. Compared to pre-COVID levels, demand was 8.7% below, and capacity was down 16.5%.


IATA said airlines in the region continue to be most affected by the war in Ukraine. 


Meanwhile, the report said Middle Eastern carriers saw a decrease of 10.7% in global and international demand in 2022 and an increase in capacity of 4.3%.


Latin American carriers posted the strongest year-on-year performance of all regions, up 13.1% year-on-year. During the same period, airlines posted a capacity increase of 27.1%.


African airlines, meanwhile, reported a decrease in demand of 1.4% for global and international demand year-on-year and an increase in capacity of 0.3%.