Africa sees the fastest recovery in air cargo – with new record highs – but passengers scarce

Business Insider SA
Africa air cargo
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  • The global demand for air cargo reached all-time highs in March – with African airlines leading the charge.
  • This follows the biggest drop in demand in 30 years in 2020.
  • But airlines can’t survive on cargo alone and Africa’s slow vaccine rollout is likely to limit the recovery of passenger carriers.
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Global air cargo demand reached an all-time high in March, with African airlines posting the fastest recovery and increasing freight volumes by 24.6% compared to the same pre-pandemic period in 2019.

Following a dismal 2020, when global air cargo volumes dropped by 10.6% – the largest decline in 30 years – the freight industry has shown a remarkable recovery in the first quarter of 2021.

Measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs) – multiplying the number of revenue tonnes of cargo carried by the distance flown – air freight volumes breached pre-pandemic levels in January. African airlines have led the charge, posting consistent year-on-year gains (2021 versus 2019) since then.

Africa’s international CTKs expanded by 22.4% in January, 44.2% in February and 24.6% in March, according to data presented by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

This growth spurt, especially in February, has been attributed to increased demand along the Africa-Asia trade lanes which more than doubled in February compared to the same month in 2019.

Airlines in North America and the Middle East have also recovered well, while CTKs of European and Asia-Pacific carriers remain stunted, hovering just above pre-pandemic levels. Latin American airlines are struggling to bounce back and are the only carriers which have reported consecutive CTK contractions in 2021.

And while the latest data reinforces optimism surrounding the cargo industry’s recovery and growth, freight alone will not be enough to save flailing airlines, explained IATA CEO Willi Walsh.

“Cargo strength will be insufficient to offset passenger market weakness,” said IATA’s outlook for the global airline industry in April.

“Overall, airline operating revenues will rise this year by 23%. But that’s only 55% of 2019 adding to the challenges for the industry which needs to stop cash burn.”

And although Africa has shown the swiftest recovery in air cargo demand, it’s also the only region to report a month-on-month decline in Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPK) between February and March. RPK measures the number of kilometres travelled by paying passengers.

African airlines’ traffic is still 73.7% down compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“This marked a deterioration compared to a 72.3% decline recorded in February compared to February 2019,” noted IATA.

Africa’s RPK levels remain higher than global growth rates – which stood at 87.8% in March, compared to 2019 – but international recovery may outpace the continent’s if the local Covid-19 vaccine rollout fails to gather pace.

“Africa has relaxed international travel restrictions by more than other regions, but vaccination is very slow, which is likely to restrict the rebound of international markets,” notes IATA.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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