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It may not seem like it to some, but international air freight traffic rose by 3.2% in the year to July, over the same period last year.
IATA has released its cargo chartbook for the third quarter – and although it warns of “concerns”, there are also some (light) notes of optimism. However, overall, 2015 is unlikely to be a stellar year for the industry.
Many of the challenges could be short-term. Revealing that July volumes were down 0.6% on a year ago, IATA points out that: “With about half of the negative growth in July explained by traffic to and from Europe, this drop may be reflective of a dampening of short-term sentiments rather than sustained underlying trends, as June and July coincided with a pinnacle of the EU sovereign debt crisis.”
It also points to “healthy” and “solid” GDP growth in the US, although shippers have built up inventories, which will weaken demand in the short term. Factors such as lower oil and gas revenues, China’s slump, Russian sanctions and the Brazilian recession have also all contributed to weakness.
The semi-conductor industry, long seen as an indicator for air freight, has sent fewer shipments this year, but in the medium-term, suggests the report, rising consumer confidence and lower oil prices could stimulate air freight demand.
Demand is but one factor determining the fortunes of air freight, however. Load factors fell 3.2 percentage points in the first seven months of the year, while in July they fell 7.4 percentage points.
Asia-Europe saw the steepest fall, at 6.2pp, while Europe-North America fell 4.22. Capacity remains an issue this year, says IATA, for every one tonne of hull capacity added by a widebody freighter, a further three will be added via passenger widebody bellies.
IATA explained: “The increase in freighter aircraft utilisation in 2014 was initially in response to stronger cargo demand. Subsequently lower jet fuel prices reduced variable costs of operations and have increased the relative importance of maximising the use of the aircraft assets. This in part contributed to the drop in load factors for cargo-only operations by nearly a percentage point in 2014.
“However, since March the synchronised dip, in both freighter utilisation and load factors, point to underlying weakness in the demand environment.”
And what of profitability? Well, the fall in yields has been lower than the fall in jet prices overall, but yields have “varied significantly by tradelane, direction and service type”.
The good news is that: “Falling yields in 2015 will be less harmful to profitability as jet fuel prices have abated. Netting out the relative changes between the price of jet fuel and yields reveals that we may see improved air cargo profitability.”
There is, of course, a ‘but’: “Reduced aircraft utilisation and lower freight load factors may increase unit cost and dilute profitability.”
Not a great year then, but it could be worse.