Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Air freight enters a delicate period

February 17 2023

REVIEW. Global air freight volumes dropped below their pre-pandemic levels in 2022 to 250.2 billion tonne-kilometres. Freight rates held up well but 2023 looks set to be a difficult year. 

The party looks to be well and truly over in the air freight sector, just as it is in the container shipping sector. Until summer 2022, these two international transport sectors took full advantage of the strong recovery which followed the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic and the lockdowns imposed in Western economies. Since then, however, the wind has turned, as fast-rising inflation has finally reduced demand.

The phenomenon is extremely rare. In autumn 2022, the air freight industry did not experience its traditional peak season. Traffic fell 15.3% year on year in December to 20.6 billion tonne-kilometres and was 7.4% down on its December 2019 total. In general, the peak season lasts until the Chinese New Year as shippers try to get their orders in before the factories close. This was not the case in January. An increase in the number of Covid cases in China, following the relaxation of the country’s lockdown measures, has disrupted production and this has generated a new reduction in demand.

Lower revenues and margins expected in 2023

For the time being, the airlines are still benefiting from a favourable supply/demand balance. Rates have certainly diminished after having overheated in 2021, particularly on Asia-Europe and transpacific routes, but they remain higher than in 2019. But the economic outlook in terms of growth and trade is fairly pessimistic. It would seem that the current headwinds are already encouraging the new entrants in the industry to adopt a cautious approach. Just a few months after it was launched, CMA CGM Air Cargo has “temporarily suspended” its services to the United States and hired out its aircraft to DHL and Qatar Airways, according to a report on US website Freightwaves. And this cutback is not the only one.


IATA's latest forecasts confirm the expected trend reversal. Airline cargo revenues for 2023 are expected to reach $149.4 billion, a year-on-year drop of 25.8%. Cargo business will account for 19.2% of total airline revenues, down from 27.7% in 2022 and a record 40.4% in 2021. Traffic is expected to fall by 4.3% to 57.7 Mt. The average yield will be hit hard by this downturn, with an estimated decline of 22.6%.


  1. No peak season
  2. Global demand declined in 2022
  3. Carriers still favoured by supply/demand balance
  4. Freight rates solid
  5. Trend expected to be reversed in 2023
  6. Operators go into fallback position

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Graduated from the Superior School of Journalism in Lille, Anne spent most of her career in the international trade and logistics press, before joining Upply.
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