IATA: Air Cargo Levels In January Returned To Pre-Crisis Levels

After a noticeable increase in demand for air cargo towards the end of 2020 following poor performance throughout the year, the air cargo industry reached pre-COVID-19 levels in January 2021. According to a report released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on March 2, 2021, data taken from global air cargo markets shows that the demand for shipping freight by air has returned to pre COVID-19 levels.

FedEx and UPS Getty
North America and Africa led the recovery in air freight. Photo: Getty Images

The figures released for January 2021 show that for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, January’s numbers show month-on-month growth over December 2020’s numbers. Due to a distortion in the numbers brought about by the coronavirus’s impact, unless otherwise mentioned, all comparisons below are related to January 2019 numbers. During this time, a normal no COVID-19 pattern was seen.

  • In cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs*), global demand was up 1.1% compared to January 2019 and 3% compared to December 2020. While all regions saw growth, North America and Africa led the way.
  • Measured in available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs), the global capacity recovery was reversed due to passenger capacity cuts. Overall capacity shrank to 19.5% compared to January 2019 and fell by 5% compared to December 2020. This was the first monthly decline since April 2020.

Support remains for air cargo volume

  • The manufacturing sector remains robust despite new outbreaks of the coronavirus, which drove down passenger numbers.
  • The global manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) was 53.5 in January, indicating growth from the preceding month.
  • A leading indicator of air cargo demand, the new export order component of the PMI continues to point towards further improvements in CTK. Having said that, the metric was less robust when compared to the fourth quarter of 2020. During Q4 2020 a resurgence of the coronavirus impacted exports in emerging markets and could weigh heavily on future air cargo growth.
  • Inventories remain low compared to sales volumes forcing businesses to hastily replenish stocks.
Total Market
Latin America
Middle East
North America

1) % of industry RPKs in 2020 | 2) Change in load factor vs. the same month in 2019 | 3) Load Factor Level

“Air cargo traffic is back to pre-crisis levels, and that is some much-needed good news for the global economy. But while there is a strong demand to ship goods, our ability is capped by the shortage of belly capacity normally provided by passenger aircraft. That should be a sign to governments that they need to share their plans for restart so that the industry has clarity in terms of how soon more capacity can be brought online. In normal times, a third of world trade by value moves by air. This high value commerce is vital to helping restore COVID damaged economies—not to mention the critical role air cargo is playing in distributing lifesaving vaccines that must continue for the foreseeable future,” – Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, via a press release seen by Simple Flying.

Regional performance in January 2021


Airlines operating in the Asia-Pacific region saw a demand for international air cargo decline by 3.2% in January compared to the same month in 2019. It was, however, an improvement on the December 2020 number, which showed a decline of 4%. International capacity in the region was down 27% compared to January 2019. This was a deterioration of 26.2% year-over-year decline recorded in December.

North America

In the North American market, carriers saw an 8.5% increase in international demand compared to January 2019, surpassing a 4.4% gain recorded in December 2020 compared to the same month a year earlier. As economic activity in the United States continues to recover, January manufacturing PMIs point to supporting air cargo growth. Internationally capacity fell by 8.5% compared to January 2019. During December, international capacity was down 12.8% versus the same period in 2019.


In Europe, the demand for air cargo slipped 0.6% in January compared to the same month in 2019. This was, however, an improvement from a 5.6% decline in December 2020.

DHL in Germany
Numbers in Europe were down in 2019 but better than in December 2020. Photo: Getty Images

International capacity saw a deterioration of 19.5%, a slightly worse figure than the 18.4% year-to-year decline recorded in December.

Middle East

Carriers in the Middle East posted a 6.0% rise in international cargo volume in January versus the same period a year earlier. Of the region’s international routes, North America and Asia provided the most support. Capacity in January was down 17.3% compared to January 2019, a slight reduction compared to December 2020s 18.2% decline.

Latin America

Latin America saw international cargo volumes decline by 16.1% in January compared to the same month in 2019 and was again a slight improvement on Decembers 19% decline. The demand for air cargo in Latin America remains less than in other parts of the world, with international capacity decreasing by 37% compared to January 2019. This figure is in line with the 36.7% year-over-year decline recorded in December 2020.


In January, cargo demand on the African continent was up 22.4% compared to the same month in 2019, surpassing a 6.3% increase recorded for December 2020. Contributing to the growth was an expansion of trade between Africa and Asia.

China Airlines 747 cargo getty
Africa-Asia trade led the way for Africa’s growth. Photo: Getty Images

In January, international capacity was down by 9.1% when compared to the same month in 2019. Capacity in December 2020 was also down by 17.8% when compared to a year earlier.

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Vaccines are the key

In what has been a slow start to the year due to the coronavirus’ variants causing governments to impose restrictions, a resurgence of air cargo numbers has to be a good thing. Let’s not forget that not everything shipped by air is done by dedicated air freighters but in the belly of passenger aircraft. With airlines cutting back drastically on the number of flights, this has affected the amount of freight being shipped by air. The next step in returning to normalcy will depend on how quickly people can get vaccinated and governments around the world lifting travel bans.

What do you think about the good news coming out of the air cargo industry? Is it a trend that will continue, or were January’s numbers not as meaningful as they seem? Please tell us what you think in the comments.