News #59 - Air cargo demand growth slows in April while attention turns to Q4


April was the fourth month in a row that global air cargo demand increased by over 11% but the market has begun to slow down after a busy start to the year, according to analysis by Xeneta.

Additional belly capacity is affecting the dynamic load factor, air cargo demand as a result of Red Sea shipping disruption is expected to reduce and spot rates are not expected to hold up, warned the ocean and airfreight rate analytics platform. 

Now airlines have launched their summer schedules, meaning more passenger planes and more belly capacity, overall cargo capacity has increased by 5% year on year.

“This placed expected downward pressure on dynamic load factor, dropping from 62% in March to 59% in April,” said Xeneta.

Dynamic load factor is Xeneta’s measurement of cargo capacity utilisation based on volume and weight of cargo flown alongside capacity available.

Meanwhile, the global air cargo spot rate rose, but this isn’t expected to last.

In April, year-on-year growth of the global air cargo spot rate turned positive for the first time since August 2022, rising 5% due to a combination of Middle East conflicts and strong e-commerce demand.

As a result, the average global spot rate rose to $2.59 per kg, its highest level this year. However, the spot rate growth should be viewed in the context of a weak market in April 2023. 

“In absolute terms, the levels of demand and supply growth are what we expect to see in April after what was a typically strong month of March at the end of Q1. April may well represent an interlude to a quieter period for the airfreight market,” said Niall van de Wouw, Xeneta’s chief airfreight officer.

He continued: “The growth in the spot rate was very much driven by regional developments as well as a case of market sentiment tending to follow market fundamentals. This is what happens in jumpy market conditions. The freight rate in April was a reaction to high first quarter volumes, but we expect rates to ease.”

Increased interest in airfreight as a result of the Red Sea shipping disruption is also set to ease as shippers and forwarders now have plans in place to manage delays, observed Xeneta.

“We have clearly seen a push for airfreight capacity around the Indian subcontinent because of the Red Sea disruption, but this impact is easing as businesses, which depend on ocean freight are now planning in longer lead times,” said van de Wouw. “So, we expect the recent surge in demand for airfreight in this region to lessen.”

Xeneta began to see a downward trend in airfreight spot rates emerging in the third week of April from this region.

The China to US market led in terms of freight rate growth in April, jumping 20% month on month to $4.87 per kg, said the platform.

This was followed by outbound freight from the Middle East and Central Asia region. In April, average spot rates to Europe and the US grew at a similar rate of 18% month on month, reaching $3.29 per kg and $4.79 per kg respectively.

The outbound Southeast Asia market followed suit as it is highly sensitive to events in nearby regions, said Xeneta. The Southeast Asia to Europe spot rate in April rose by 14% month on month in April to $3.06 per kg, while the rate to the US increased 12% to $4.66 per kg.

Meanwhile, the only major region to see a significant decline in freight rate was the Europe to US market, with the April spot rate falling -8% month-on-month to $1.93 per kg.

The Asia Pacific to North America market experienced the largest spot share decline in April at -10% pts compared to a year ago, shrinking its gap with the pre-pandemic level to just +1% pt.

Xeneta’s spot rate share refers to the proportion of cargo volumes sold in the spot market. 

In contrast, the Europe to North America market only saw a modest spot share decline of 5% pts. Its spot rate remained 20% pts above the pre-pandemic level for the same period.

This reflects the market expectation of milder freight rate adjustments for the transatlantic market thanks to adequate cargo capacity and freight rate levels getting closer to their pre-pandemic levels, said Xeneta.

The analyst added that the airfreight rate trend in the second half of April reflected a typical slowdown in global cargo demand growth for this time of year.

The platform also saw more freight buyers shifting volumes off the spot market (with freight rates valid for up to one month). In April, the global spot share averaged 41%, down 4% pts from a year earlier. However, it remained +10% pts above the pre-pandemic level for the same period.

Shippers and forwarders are now securing capacity ahead of the fourth quarter peak season in light of last year’s e-commerce demand, plus more flexibility is being built into contracts.

“There’s the reality of now, where you will see load factor decline on markets because of the increase in capacity, sitting alongside the preparations already under way for Q4. That’s top of mind for shippers, forwarders and, to a lesser extent, airlines, and they are jockeying for position after a ‘strong’ peak season last year,” van de Wouw said.

“Before then, there was no prior experience of the order of magnitude of the e-commerce behemoths and their impact on air cargo’s traditional peak season market. This year, the traditional market is looking to derisk and will plan to be better prepared.

“Q4 is just around the corner in planning terms and freight forwarders are already looking beyond the summer to secure market share because they are concerned about what e-commerce is going to do out of southern China and Hong Kong later in the year.”

One surprise, van de Wouw added, is the price validity periods of new contracts between shippers and forwarders. “We see a big swing from agreements increasing in length to a reversed trend of more short-term contracts as shippers look to buy a bit of time because of the black swan event in the Red Sea.

“We also see more agreements between shippers and forwarders which contain a mechanism to deal with market rate changes throughout the validity of their contracts. This reflects how the need to manage market volatility is surpassing the typical wheeling and dealing over the last few cents in contracts.

“Shippers will prefer longer-lasting relationships with freight forwarders that know their business, delivering good operational performance at a competitive rate level. Freight forwarders want predictability of their revenues to avoid having to go to tender each quarter to secure the business. So, these mechanisms can work for both parties.”

But, while forwarders are looking to buy more longer-term capacity, airlines face ‘a balancing act’ to make the most profit.

Van de Wouw added: “If airlines think Q4 is going to be busy again, they’re not going to sell all their capacity now. They must decide how much they want to commit now, knowing they can possibly get up to 50% more revenue for that same capacity on the short-term market in Q4.”


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