2Strong growth continues. Does distance matter?

In air cargo, the merry month of May was definitely worthy of its name: a 7.5% increase in year- over-year (YoY) tonnage was accompanied by a minimal yield drop (in USD) of 0.2% only. From April to May, yields fell by 1.9%, a not unusual seasonal phenomenon.

In outgoing volumes, Asia Pacific stood out with growth over 10% YoY, followed by Central & South America (+8.7%) and Africa (+8.5%). A YoY yield increase could only be registered for the origin Europe (+5%), but this was entirely due to rate-of-exchange effects. Measured in EUR, yields ex Europe were flat as well. In incoming cargo, Africa and the Middle East did very well with YoY yields (in USD) growing by 4.9% resp. 3.9%.

The already positive year-to-date trend was further reinforced, leading to a 5% YoY revenue growth (in USD) for January - May 2014. Yield differences between the individual months were less pronounced than last year. Perishables as well as pharmaceuticals and temperature-controlled goods continued to grow more than other cargo. The latter two categories also helped to keep the yield somewhat in check on its downward path: without them, the yield drop would have been 2.1% instead of 1.8%.

This month, we take a look at developments in the short, medium and long distance markets. We approximated the “great circle distance” (shortest distance between two points on the globe) for each country pair in our database, grouped the country pairs over ten different “distance brackets”, and asked ourselves the question: does distance matter in air cargo growth? Our preliminary reply, perhaps not surprisingly: yes and no.

The 2% volume growth from 2010 to 2013 appeared to be fairly evenly distributed. Only the groups of country pairs above 14,000 km, and those between 4,000 and 6,000 km, showed significant growth of 11% resp. 8%: together, they make up 1/6 of total volume. In short haul markets below 2,000 km, counting for 10% of the total, volume contracted by 3%. In other words, about 75% of country pair groups, all in the range between 2,000 and 14,000 km, showed growth close to average. USD-yields increased by 3% in markets below 8,000 km, but decreased considerably (-6%) in longer haul markets. Exceptions were the groups of markets below 2,000 km (+ 5.7%) and above 14,000 km (+ 3.5%).

As one would expect, revenues per kg increase with distance, following a regular pattern. Revenues per TKM (ton of cargo transported over one kilometer) behave differently. They drop sharply as distances go up to 6,000 km. They still drop in markets between 6,000 and 14,000 km, albeit much more gradually, to hit their minimum – consistently over the years - in markets between 14,000 and 16,000 km. In the very long haul markets, a niche anyway, RTKM’s increase again, but not strongly.

The average great circle distance between origin and destination of all shipments, is just under 8,000 km. Interestingly, the limited volume growth over the past three years was realized more in markets under 8,000 km than in markets of longer distance: the share of the former went up slightly. With revenues per TKM higher in the lower distance markets, one could be tempted to conclude that the pressure to further decrease unit cost must have marginally abated. Yet, we would be highly surprised to find many executives endorsing such view… And right they are, given the still wafer-thin margins in air cargo.