Sky High Shift: E-Commerce and Shipping Woes Propel General Cargo to New Heights

The air cargo industry has witnessed a notable shift in dynamics during the first half of 2024, with general cargo outpacing the growth of special products. This trend, driven by increasing e-commerce demand and disruptions in the container shipping industry, marks a significant reversal from previous years. Data from WorldACD, a leading provider of air cargo market intelligence, reveals that general cargo volumes surged by 13% in the first five months of 2024.

In comparison, volumes of special products, including perishables, dangerous goods, high tech, and pharmaceuticals, rose by 10%. The overall air cargo market experienced a year-on-year increase of 12%. The resurgence in general cargo demand can be attributed to two primary factors: the robust growth of cross-border e-commerce and the ongoing disruptions in container shipping.

One factor for this is the strong growth since the start of last autumn in cross-border e-commerce traffic, which often flies in bulk as general cargo rather than within a special product category, stated WorldACD. Additionally, the conversion of sea freight to air cargo and sea-air solutions has been prompted by disruptions in container shipping following attacks on vessels in the Red Sea since last November. These disruptions have led shippers to seek more reliable and faster air freight alternatives.

These trends have resulted in substantial year-on-year increases in chargeable weight from key regions. The Asia Pacific region saw a 20% rise, while the Middle East & South Asia (MESA) experienced a 22% increase over the five months to May 2024.

Globally, special cargo products accounted for 35% of the total air cargo market in the first five months of 2024. However, regional variations were evident. For instance, general cargo constituted approximately 70% of the key Asia Pacific origin market. Interestingly, the growth of special cargo from Asia Pacific (+24%) outpaced that of general cargo (+18%), highlighting the region’s dynamic cargo landscape.

Despite the overall growth in special products lagging behind general cargo, specific categories have shown remarkable performance. Vulnerable and high-tech products, along with meat, registered a 25% year-on-year increase, making them the fastest-growing special products. Conversely, volumes of human remains, live animals, and fish/seafood saw declines of 10%, 7%, and 1%, respectively. Fruit and vegetable volumes increased by 10%, and flowers grew by 6%, indicating steady demand in these perishable categories.

Hong Kong emerged as the fastest-growing origin in May, with volumes increasing by 30,000 tonnes. This was followed by strong performances from China Southeast, China East, India, and the UAE, showcasing the pivotal role of these regions in driving air cargo growth.

Freighter operators experienced a 6% increase in volumes in the first five months of the year. However, passenger operators and mixed fleet carriers saw even more significant growth, each reporting a 13% rise in cargo volumes. This trend underscores the growing reliance on passenger aircraft belly capacity for cargo transport, a practice that gained prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be a vital component of the air cargo industry.

As e-commerce continues to expand and container shipping faces ongoing challenges, the air cargo industry is poised for further growth in general cargo volumes. The dynamic interplay between different cargo categories and regional performances will shape the industry’s landscape in the coming months.

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