Air Cargo Weakness Threatens Airline Revenues

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According to some estimates, up to 40% of the value of world trade travels by air. Thinking about that, the factoid has the ring of truth. You don’t need a container ship or a VLCC to carry a haul of diamonds and gold or computer chips. And while 2013 air cargo traffic improved a bit, 2014 is expected to be another challenging year.

In remarks made Sunday ahead of the Singapore Airshow, International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general Tony Tyler cautioned that weakness in cargo markets is the airlines’ biggest worry for the new year. Based on the most recent numbers from the carriers, there is reason to be at least a little bit worried.

In the fourth quarter, United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) cargo revenue dropped 9.5% to $220 million. For the year, United’s cargo revenue dropped 13.4% to $882 million. Cargo represents just 2.3% of the company’s revenue, but, given the thin profits that airlines are running, losing cargo revenues makes it just that much harder to post profits.

American Airlines Group Inc. (Nasdaq: AAL) depends somewhat more on cargo revenues. Fourth quarter cargo revenue rose 13.9% to $196 million and full-year revenues rose 1.4% to $685 million. The company was created by the merger of AMR Corp. and US Airways. Due to the merger, the full-year results include only about three weeks of December and primarily reflect cargo revenues at the old AMR.

Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL) did not break out cargo revenues, but the number of cargo ton miles flown by the airline fell by 3.7% in the quarter and year-over-year. Delta estimates that its cargo operations will generate $1 billion in revenue in 2014, about half what its baggage fees and other service charges generate.

In its fiscal-second quarter, which ended in November, FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) reported a slight revenue decline due to lower express freight revenue. The company was able to show a profit primarily because it raised its package shipping rates.,

United Parcel Service Inc. (NYSE: UPS) said fourth quarter revenue per package declined by 1.3%. The company also said revenues in its supply chain and freight segment fell 5.8% to $2.3 billion due primarily to reduced tonnage and lower revenue per kilogram in the company’s international air freight group.

The issue is essentially one of speed vs. cost. Here’s how IATA’s Tyler puts it:

Customers still need speed, quality, reliability and efficiency. And we need to get better at delivering it through improved technology and modern processes. This will be a year of change for air cargo.

The total air cargo market grew by just 1.4% in 2013. The industry needs to do better this year.

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