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ASIAN Air Cargo: When will there come brighter days?

(VLR) The top nine carriers in the 56th edition of IATA’s recently released World Air Transport Statistics for 2011 — ranked by scheduled freight-tonne kilometers in domestic, international and total tonnage categories — were unchanged from the previous year. There were significant movements in the rest of the top 50, determined largely by geography, but this is the year in which the tectonic plates are really beginning to shift. When the league tables for 2012 are published in a year’s time, the world could see a reshuffling of the pack right from top to bottom.

The top nine carriers in the 56th edition of IATA’s recently released World Air Transport Statistics for 2011 — ranked by scheduled freight-tonne kilometers in domestic, international and total tonnage categories — were unchanged from the previous year. There were significant movements in the rest of the top 50, determined largely by geography, but this is the year in which the tectonic plates are really beginning to shift. When the league tables for 2012 are published in a year’s time, the world could see a reshuffling of the pack right from top to bottom.

The reason for the impending shift? Asia’s carriers are not exactly breathing fire in this Chinese Year of the Dragon. The region’s heavy hitters — Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, China Airlines and EVA Air, who are all ranked in the top 15 for total tonnage — are losing ground. Europe’s big three — Lufthansa, Air France and IAG, the British Airways/Iberia creation — are shedding capacity in response to reduced passenger numbers and shrinking freight volumes. Neither can the leading U.S. players expect to improve their positions on next year’s chart, except on the technicality that United, which this year experienced a free fall to 30th in the total rankings, and Continental, down to 44th, may just scrape inside the top 20 as a combined entity.

The leading Chinese and Taiwanese carriers may have held their ground in 2011, but Asia already had its strugglers as faster-growing carriers overhauled Korea’s Asiana and Malaysia Airlines. Japan Airlines fell eight places in the total rankings, but this may have been more a result of its bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring than the tsunami, since its Japanese competitors fared better. All Nippon Airways overtook JAL, but Nippon Cargo Airlines fell two places.

The Middle East continues its inexorable rise. Qatar Airways, Etihad and Turkish Airlines all took a considerable jump up the ladder, finishing 2011 at 16th, 23rd and 28th place, respectively. Ethiopian Airlines (one to watch for the future) moved into the top 50 for the first time. Brazil’s TAM Airlines was the biggest mover of all, soaring from 51st to 33rd place in total tonnage, while LAN Airlines of Chile crept up four places to 15th. The carriers merged in June to form LATAM, Latin America’s largest airline. Cargo accounted for 17 percent of LATAM’s total sales last year, and the group aims to increase this proportion to 25 percent by 2016.

TAM’s international growth highlights the resilience of the Brazilian economy and the strength of the Brazilian real against other currencies, says a spokesman. “There has been growing demand for Brazilian goods, but equally, Brazil has increased its imports. In 2011, TAM increased the number of international destinations it served, as well as frequencies, meaning greater cargo capacity to match growing demand in both directions,” he comments.

TAM also soared in domestic cargo, reflecting the fact that Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, and air transportation is now more efficiently bridging the large distances between its states and cities. “For example, it would take over 13 hours to transport urgent medicines and pharmaceutical supplies by road between Sao Paulo and the Brazilian northeast,” the spokesman says.

ASIA STILL SUFFERING

Cathay Pacific cut 25 percent of European and 15 percent of trans-Pacific freighter capacity in the first half of the year. A spokeswoman says three Boeing 747-400BCFs have been taken out of operation so far, and further adjustments may be necessary. The carrier is putting more focus on intra-Asian services and has added two new freighter destinations this year, launching twice-weekly services from Hong Kong to Zhengzhou, China, and Hyderabad, India. Frequencies have also been to increased to Bengaluru, India (three flights per week, up from one) and to Osaka, Japan (five flights per week, up from one).

A 10-percent fall in cargo volumes and widening losses at Air Cargo China, Cathay Pacific’s joint venture with Air China, contributed to first-half losses of HK$935 million for CX. The carrier blamed the slowdown in shipments out of its main Hong Kong and Shanghai hubs, with European routes especially weak, as well as increased competition from Middle Eastern airlines.

Cathay’s first-half cargo revenue fell 7.6 percent, year-over-year, and load factor was down by 4.1 points from last year, ending at 64.3 percent, despite the capacity reduction. Nick Rhodes, director of cargo, has commented that Cathay is prepared to lose market share in an effort to maintain its above-average rates out of China. Presenting the interim results, Cathay CEO John Slosar noted that rival carriers, repositioning aircraft from North American and European routes, were creating more competition in stronger markets, such as India. He sees gradual signs of recovery, but acknowledges that Chinese manufacturers’ relocation away from the coast may leave Cathay less well-placed to benefit. However, Slosar claims a new cargo terminal in Hong Kong will cut cargo transit times in half, helping overcome the geographic penalty through greater efficiency.

South Korea’s international air cargo volumes fell 2 percent, year-over-year, when compared with the first half of 2011. The drop comes from slowdowns in the Chinese and U.S. economies and the European economic crisis. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs predicts further shrinkage in the second half of the year, partly due to reduced global demand for IT products. Weakness in its cargo business drove Korean Air into the red in the second quarter, despite increased passenger traffic on all routes.

Conversely, Singapore Airlines moved back into profit in its first quarter, but officials said continued weakness in airfreight demand had eroded yields. SIA Cargo’s operating loss widened, and carrier officials say the cargo outlook remains weak.

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