The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced global traffic results for April showing that total passenger demand rose 6.1% while freight demand was 4.2% down on April 2011.
Despite continuing economic weakness in some parts of the world, demand for air travel continues to grow. The 6.1% overall growth recorded for April is above the 20-year trend. Strong demand for air travel with limited capacity expansion pushed load factors to 79.3% which is a record high for an April load factor.
The 4.2% contraction in air freight markets compared to April 2011 is somewhat misleading. Air freight markets slumped sharply in the first half of 2011 and bottomed out towards the end of the year. Various distortions and month-to-month volatility have marked the industry performance since the beginning of 2012. However, April cargo levels stood at about 2% higher than in November 2011. About 80% of this improvement has been captured by Middle Eastern airlines. Air freight for the Asia-Pacific, European and North American carriers has continued to show weakness.
“It’s a volatile and risky world. Airlines are being cautious managing through the uncertainty. Overall passenger demand was up 6.1% in April and capacity increases were held back to 3.8%. There are signs that cargo has bottomed out. Amid the many distortions that have marked the first four months of the year, it is possible to identify the start of a growth trend in cargo for some parts of the world. But economic uncertainty in Europe makes it very difficult to be optimistic in the near to medium-term,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
International passenger markets
International air travel rose 7.4% in April compared to the year-ago period, outstripping a capacity expansion of 4.3%. April load factors stood at 79.1%, up 2.3 percentage points from April 2011.
European airlines recorded passenger demand growth of 5.9%. This is below the 7.4% global average and is significantly lower than the 8.7% growth recorded in March. Demand was, however, stronger than the 3.4% capacity expansion which pushed load factors to 80.7%. While this is a relatively strong performance compared to previous-year levels, since the beginning of the year, there has been a declining trend. April, for example, saw traffic contract by 0.3% compared to March—despite the Easter holiday period being in mid-April.
Asia-Pacific carriers also experienced strong growth of 9.3% against a capacity expansion of 4.6%. Load factors stood at 78.1%. The strong performance is exaggerated by the comparison to April 2011 when Asia-Pacific markets were particularly weak in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Removing the impact of the event, the region’s growth is estimated to be about 6%.
North American airlines saw passenger demand expand by 1.6% in April compared to the previous year. This is the weakest demand growth among all regions and represents a weakening from the 5.3% year-on-year growth recorded in March. However, the trend in North American travel is still positive since the end of 2011, as US economic conditions and particularly consumer confidence has improved. North American carriers were also the only region to cut capacity (by an almost equal 1.5%). This allowed the region’s carriers to post the strongest load factors at 80.8%.
Middle East airlines’ traffic growth has started to pick up pace again, recording a 16.0% gain in passenger demand for April, after having softened in the second half of 2011. Although this is a fall from the 20.9% growth recorded in March, the March result was distorted by the impacts of the Arab Spring in 2011. Furthermore, demand did grow faster than the 12.7% capacity expansion in April and load factors remained high at 78.3%.
Latin American carriers experienced a 9.0% expansion in international demand in April compared to the same month in 2011. Despite some potential for economic slowdown, growth has been solid enough in the region’s economies to sustain strong demand for passenger travel. This outpaced the capacity expansion of 5.3% and bucked expectations of a slowdown in the region due to weakening economic conditions. Load factors stood at 78.6%.
African airlines reported a 7.0% increase in demand. It was the only region where capacity expansion (8.5%) outpaced demand growth. Load factors were the weakest at 65.9%.
Domestic passenger markets
Domestic markets grew at about half the rate of international markets, just 3.9%. Load factors of 79.7% were slightly higher than on international routes (79.1%).
- Japan experienced the strongest traffic growth, up 27.8% year-on-year. This, however, reflects the devastating impact on year-ago traffic of the natural disasters of March 2011. While the market has significantly recovered, domestic traffic levels remain 8% below pre-earthquake and tsunami levels. Load factors of 57% are the lowest among major domestic markets.
- China’s domestic demand reflected the slowdown seen more broadly across the Chinese economy. The 6.3% growth recorded in April was the lowest recorded since early 2011 and well behind the 10.1% growth reported in March. The result reflects the slowdown seen in the economy more widely. Load factors of 82.2%, nonetheless, were high.
- US domestic markets grew by 1.0% in April while capacity contracted by 0.7%. Load factors were the highest at 83.6%.
- Passenger demand in Brazil grew by just 2.0%, below the 4.5% capacity expansion. Load factors stood at 70.2%.
- India traffic rose by 8.6% year-over-year, ahead of the 1.7% capacity expansion. Load factors stood at 75.3%.
Air Freight (Domestic and International)
- Air freight markets, while weak, are now showing some signs of expansion after bottoming out toward the end of 2011.
- Asia-Pacific carriers saw a 7.3% decline in demand in April, well ahead of capacity cuts of 4.1%. This reflects weakening exports from China. European airlines saw a 4.9% fall in cargo traffic compared to the year before, despite having cut capacity by 0.2%. North American carriers showed a 6.4% drop in demand with a 2.9% cut in capacity. Latin American carriers recorded a 3.6% fall in demand even though capacity expanded by 8.8% compared to April 2011.
- Middle Eastern carriers were the bright spot in cargo with a 14.5% increase in demand. But this was behind a 15.1% increase in capacity. African carriers showed a 6.1% increase in demand, behind a 9.0% increase in capacity.
The Bottom Line
“The growth in passenger markets is encouraging. But it comes against an environment of continuing high oil prices and growing economic uncertainty. So translating the stronger demand into profits will be difficult,” said Tyler.
With the exception of Africa, all markets saw capacity expansion at levels below the expansion in demand. “In the face of economic uncertainty, many airline managements will be going back to first principles—careful capacity management, cost control and conserving cash. This will be the order of the day until some clarity comes to the global economic outlook. Of course the uncertainty impacts the whole value chain. We are all in this together. Airlines will be particularly looking to their industry partners to share the imperative on cost control,” said Tyler.
IATA will update its industry financial outlook on 11 June 2012 at the Association’s Annual General Meeting to be held in Beijing, China from 10-12 June 2012.