Air cargo activity at major European hubs hasn’t yet bounced back to pre-pandemic figures, suggesting the market is either stagnant or gradually recovering.
Last month, Europe’s leading air cargo hub saw a modest rise of 2.3% from the previous year, achieving 164,503 tonnes. However, this increase primarily stems from last year’s decisions to slash freighter capacity. The current figure still lags behind the long-standing July average of roughly 178,000 tonnes.
Interestingly, with a surge in passenger flights and the phasing out of specific cargo services, July witnessed a significant spike in cargo aboard passenger flights — a robust 19.7% jump. This number now represents about 93% of the volume recorded in July 2019. When comparing load on freighter flights versus passenger flights, the ratio holds steady at 60:40, mirroring the pre-pandemic statistics from 2019. Although the tonnage on freighter flights showed a 2.9% increase from the previous year, it’s still down 8.7% from 2019.
Predicting when cargo volumes might return to their pre-pandemic glory hinges mainly on the pace of economic revival. Given the myriad of influencing factors, giving a definitive timeline for this rebound remains a challenge.
The stats of Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) reveal a cargo throughput of 113,537 tonnes last month, a drop from the 120,131 tonnes recorded in July the prior year. A closer look at these numbers unveils a mild recovery for shipments to and from Asia, with a 2.1% rise totaling 42,167 tonnes. Unfortunately, all other regions witnessed a dip, with North America notably plummeting by 21.2%, settling at 19,278 tonnes.
In contrast, London Heathrow (LHR) managed 114,887 tonnes in the past month, a modest leap from the 110,044 tonnes in the same month of the previous year. But this number still falls short of the 130,589 tonnes from July 2019.
Leipzig/Halle Airport (LEJ) data showcased approximately 114,600 tonnes, a decline of 9% from the preceding year, mirroring the broader global economic deceleration. However, looking at the bigger picture from January to July, this hub managed around 802,303 tonnes, a decrease from the prior year but an uptick from the 714,000 tonnes between January and July two years before.
While specific metrics provide optimism, the broader European air cargo landscape remains a mixed bag, underscoring the importance of agile strategies and adaptability in these ever-evolving times.
- Reevaluate Capacity Plans: Given the stagnant or slow recovery in European air cargo hubs, consider diversifying air freight routes or hubs.
- Leverage Passenger Flights: With a surge in cargo aboard passenger flights, explore this as an alternative to traditional freighter flights.
- Scenario Planning: Due to the uncertainty of when cargo volumes will return to pre-pandemic levels, develop multiple scenarios for air freight strategies.
- Peak Season is predicted to be insignificant compared to earlier years due to lower demand and good capacity situation.
- Prepare for Golden week
As China’s Golden Week holiday approaches next month, container freight rates are experiencing a downward trend. Historically, this period would see a surge in bookings due to the imminent week-long factory hiatus. However, current indications from China suggest a different scenario. This week’s shipping towards North Europe and the US has seen a drop in capacity use, with some carriers operating at only 80% capacity. Consequently, shipping companies are hastily adjusting their schedules, with many changes expected through mid-October.
Adding to the complexity, the Panama Canal is facing its own set of challenges due to low water levels. An extended dry season and a less rainy wet season have led to a shortage of freshwater, affecting the canal’s lock system that moves ships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This has resulted in significant delays and a backlog of approximately 150 ships. Canal authorities have had to implement water-saving measures, reducing the number of ships that can pass through daily and imposing weight restrictions. This situation raises concerns about its potential impact on global supply chains and consumer prices.
Xeneta’s tracking of rates between Asia and North Europe indicates a 4% dip this week, positioning the average rate at $1,525 for a 40ft container. Notably, this is an 80% drop compared to last year. There are whispers of rates dipping below $1,000 in certain circles, although this might be speculative and not reflect actual market conditions.
Even the usually stable Asia-Mediterranean route is feeling the pressure from dwindling demand. In anticipation of “reduced demand” during Golden Week, MSC, a major shipping company, announced the cancellation of three of its Asia-Mediterranean routes, extending into the week starting October 9th.
Regarding transpacific routes, carriers have been proactively cutting back on sailings from Asia to the US West Coast to uphold their recently implemented rate increments. A notable shipping giant introduced a new surcharge for shipments from Asia to North America. However, it’s still unclear if these new rates will hold firm, especially as this week’s indices don’t reflect any substantial impact.
For context, this week’s average shipping rate from Asia to the US west coast is $2,217 for a 40ft container. On the transatlantic side, carriers face mounting challenges. The prevalent rate from North Europe to the US east coast currently sits at $1,217 for a 40ft container, a stark decline from last year’s $9,000 average.
Carrier operations within the contract market are undergoing immense stress, compounded by the influx of new ships against a backdrop of flagging demand. Regardless of the region, these falling long-term rates contrast sharply with the thriving scenario from just a year ago.
- Early Booking for Golden Week: With China’s Golden Week approaching and carriers operating at reduced capacity, consider early bookings to secure space.
- Rate Negotiation: Given the significant rate drops, it might be an opportune time to renegotiate contracts with carriers.
- Contingency Planning: Develop contingency plans for both Asia-North Europe and transpacific routes, especially in light of the Panama Canal issues.
- Review Weight Restrictions: Be aware of new weight restrictions due to Panama Canal’s low water levels and adjust cargo loads accordingly.
In Q2 2023, European road freight rates witnessed spot rates falling below contract rates for the first time in six years. The Contract Rate Index saw a marginal drop from the previous quarter but increased year on year. Conversely, the Spot Rate Index declined significantly both quarter on quarter and year on year. This trend in spot rates stems from decreased short-term demand due to high consumer prices and stagnant wages. Although European energy prices have fallen, fuel costs remain elevated from pre-conflict times. Despite the rate drops, freight prices are still higher than before the pandemic, suggesting increased hauler costs.
The shortage of truck drivers, though improving, is still a concern. Elevated interest rates suggest we see further reduced demand and possible continued rate reductions, with this trend expected to last until 2024 or beyond.
- Rate Analysis: With spot rates falling below contract rates, consider renegotiating contracts or moving more freight to spot markets.
- Fuel Cost Mitigation: Despite falling energy prices, fuel costs remain high due to uncertainty of the current economic situation
- Driver Shortage Strategy: As the demand is lower, driver shortage is not as visible but the problem has not disappeared.
- Long-term Planning: Given the trend in rate reductions expected to last until 2024 or beyond, adjust long-term road freight strategies accordingly.
The European Commission (EC) has unveiled plans to redirect rail freight funding intended initially for Belarus and Russia to Ukraine and Moldova. This decision, amounting to about €135m, aims to bolster cross-border connections between Ukraine and its European neighbors in light of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. However, experts stress that the impact will only be significant if the funds are disbursed immediately and in a lump sum, considering the high costs of rail development in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Estonia’s state-owned rail freight enterprise, Operail, has seen an 83% volume decrease during the first half of the year due to sanctions against Russia. This decline has prompted considerations of privatization for the company. As a result of the conflict, China’s ambitions for express train services across Russia have been curtailed, leading to a renewed focus on alternate routes, with the Caucasus region, particularly Kazakhstan, emerging as potential alternatives for connecting Europe and China by rail.
- Risk Assessment: Conduct a thorough risk assessment for rail operations involving Russia and Belarus, especially in light of sanctions.
- Explore Alternate Routes: With China’s ambitions across Russia curtailed, look into alternate routes like the Caucasus region for connecting Europe and China by rail.
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