Capacity problems but cargo still strong

Data for global air cargo markets shows that demand continued to be well above pre-crisis levels and that capacity constraints persist.

Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs*), was up 9.1% compared with September 2019 (9.4% for international operations). Capacity remains constrained at 8.9% below pre-COVID-19 levels (September 2019) (-12% for international operations). 

Several factors impacting global air cargo demand should be noted:

  • Supply chain disruptions and the resulting delivery delays have led to long supplier delivery times. This typically means manufacturers use air transport, which is quicker, to recover time lost during the production process. The September global Supplier Delivery Time Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) was at 36. Values below 50 are favorable for air cargo. 
  • The September new export orders component and manufacturing output component of the PMIs have deteriorated from levels in previous month but remain in favorable territory. Manufacturing activity continued to expand at a global level but there was contraction in emerging economies. 
  • The inventory-to-sales ratio remains low ahead of the peak year-end retail events such as Single’s Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. This is positive for air cargo, although further capacity constraints put this at risk. 
  • The cost-competitiveness of air cargo relative to that of container shipping remains favorable. Pre-crisis, the average price to move air cargo was 12.5 times more expensive than sea shipping. In September 2021, it was only three times more expensive.


“Air cargo demand grew 9.1% in September compared with pre-COVID levels. There is a benefit from supply chain congestion as manufacturers turn to air transport for speed. But severe capacity constraints continue to limit the ability of air cargo to absorb extra demand. If not addressed, bottlenecks in the supply chain will slow the economic recovery from COVID-19. Governments must act to relieve pressure on global supply chains and improve their overall resilience,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

To relieve supply chain disruptions, including those highlighted by the United States on supply chain resilience on the sidelines of last weekend’s G20 Summit, IATA is calling on governments to:

  • Ensure that air crew operations are not hindered by COVID-19 restrictions designed for air travelers
  • Implement the commitments governments made at the ICAO High Level Conference on COVID-19 to restore international connectivity. This will ramp-up vital cargo capacity with “belly” space.
  • Provide innovative policy incentives to address labor shortages.


Credit | Sorbis / Shutterstock