IATA released its Q2 2016 Cargo Market Analysis on July 28. Regarding the economic outlook and traffic performance it states that prior to the “Brexit shock,” global economic growth was weak but positioned for a moderate improvement. It reports that stronger than expected growth in the euro area and Japan in the first quarter combined with policy support in China and improved confidence in Brazil and Russia in the second quarter all pointed to a small acceleration in global growth. However, it says the Brexit vote has reversed expectations, with the global economy now poised to decelerate in 2016 compared to 2015, with forecasts being revised downward from what was already projected to be lack-lustre.
IATA states that policy makers in Europe need to focus on an orderly way to deal with the Brexit vote repercussions so as to avoid larger scale adverse spill overs and reduce uncertainty. It says the continued strength of the USD and overall weakness in the global economy has added headwinds to the US. However, it notes that underlying drivers in the US economy remain positive, with decreasing unemployment. The slow pick-up in nominal wage growth does not signal weakness as it is explained by lower inflationary pressures. It reports that the air cargo market had a weak first quarter but recovered and grew in the second with June levels pointing to year-on-year growth of 4.3% in freight tonne kilometres (FTKs). Compared to 2015, year-to-June FTK volume growth was 0.5%. The lower ytd growth in 2016 understates performance as it is compared with a period in 2015 when demand for air cargo saw a one-off boost from the US west coast port backlog. European carriers’ FTKs grew throughout the year, with traffic expanding in both quarters. The second quarter saw strong growth in trade by air on the Europe – Asia trade lane. Middle Eastern carriers explain the largest share (36%) of the Q2 growth, a clear indication of the increasing role this region’s carriers including in channelling flows to and from Asia. Asian and European carriers also explain a significant portion of the growth seen in Q2 representing 32% and 20% respectively. In contrast, growth has been elusive for Latin American carriers as regional trade and macroeconomic weakness has led to contraction in traffic in both quarters.
Demand Environment and Drivers
IATA noted that global merchandized trade has continued to contract in 2016, the level in May was down by 1.9% compared to the January 2015 peak. In 2016, monthly trade levels have fallen perpetually every month, except for a slight month-on-month rise of 0.8% in February. The level in May was down by 1.6% compared to the 2015 year-end level. International FTK growth has fared better. In seasonally adjusted terms, air cargo had a weak first quarter with the market shrinking by 1.6% at the end of March compared to the 2015-year end level. In the second quarter it recovered and grew, the level in May was up by 1.7% and 2.2% in June compared to the 2015 year-end level. The weaker growth of total merchandized trade is in part explained by particularly poor performance of bulk commodities/heavy industry. The World Trade Outlook Indicator (WTOI) developed by the WTO to shed light on the trajectory of trade relative to recent trends, suggests growth will remain sluggish into the third quarter. Global Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) for export orders have recovered somewhat since the significant dip in February. The improving trend, although still weak, is a positive development for air freight. However, these figures do not reflect the materialization of the Brexit risk and should be treated with caution. The decrease in semi-conductor shipments points to weaker demand drivers for air freighted commodities in the short term. The confluence of a sluggish world trade outlook, Brexit aftermath and weak demand drivers suggest that the positive momentum observed in FTKs over the past three months may be paused. However, consumer confidence has continued to improve over the last quarter and remains strong, although it remains to be seen if it will be adversely impacted in the short-term from the Brexit shock. Strength in consumer confidence and prospects for favourable lagged impact of lower oil prices are factors that can reenergize growth in the global economy.
Capacity and Competition
IATA’s reports says deliveries have generally outpaced retirements, meaning that the cumulative payload capacity of widebody freighters available in storage and in-service has gradually increased. Since 2008, new widebody freighter deliveries have outpaced retirements by 17% in terms of payload capacity. About three fifths of the retired widebody freighter payload is from the Boeing 747 series (mostly 200s) with another fifth explained by retirements of DC-10s and MD-11s. Boeing leads new deliveries with over 90% of new widebody payload capacity – 747 -800s, 767s and 777s are the most popular aircraft. With the drop in fuel price that started in Q2 2014, the pace of retirements has slowed faster than the entry of new freighter deliveries. Over the past year deliveries of widebody payload capacity have outpaced retirements nearly 3 to 1. In -service payload capacity for widebody freighters increased for the fifth consecutive quarter. The increase is explained by a reduction of in -storage capacity and delivery of new aircraft. However, payload capacity available in storage remains high at 17.5% of in -service payload capacity, significantly above pre -crisis levels of Q1 2007 when it was 10.5% despite an environment of higher fuel prices in 2007. In-service widebody freighter payload capacity in 2016 Q2 grew by 4.1% compared to 2015Q2. In contrast, FTK growth over the same period was just 2.8%. The capacity challenge is further exacerbated by the strong growth in demand in the passenger business. Deliveries of wide-body passenger aircraft have led to the addition of significant levels of hull capacity. On some trade lanes this has had a significant impact on dynamics in the air cargo market. Available freight tonne kilometres (AFTKs) grew 5.0% in 2016Q2 compared to 2015Q2 outpacing FTKs growth of 2.8%. IATA explains that the increasing utilization of large freighter aircraft is a contributing factor to higher availability of capacity. Freighter aircraft utilization has improved significantly from the recent lows reached in September 2013. This points to another means through which capacity has been boosted in the current market environment. Airlines are increasing using freighters to balance the cargo flows with passenger demand in their networks. This in part explains the observed step reduction in average utilization levels of large freighter aircraft from the time period preceding the global financial crisis.
Revenues, costs and profits
Downward yield trajectory started to accelerate in the second half of 2014 as lower fuel prices were sustained. At an industry level total international air cargo yields have continued to deteriorate in 2016 but the latest deterioration is likely to be particularly damaging to profitability. Seasonal variability in yield performance and fuel price developments do not explain the worsening yield environment. Once seasonal factors are adjusted for, yield erosion since Jan has been between 5-6%. This comes at a time of increasing fuel prices over this period, with average monthly fuel prices having risen every month in 2016. Average fuel prices were 43% higher in June compared to Jan, representing a significant increase albeit from a relatively low base. Although rising fuel prices abated in July, a challenging yield environment is expected to persist. Flooding-in of capacity (discussed in previous section) amid a weak global trade backdrop can lead to taking a bite out of air cargo profitability. IATA survey of heads of cargo confirms concerns over yield performance for the year ahead.