- Sustained long-term momentum in the use of air transport in Asia, thanks to the emergence of the middle classes
- Technological advances contribute to cost reduction
- Sector heavily impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, supply chain disruptions and operating cost increases
- Sector highly dependent on oil price fluctuations
- Sector hit hard by environmental concerns
The transport sector (air, road, sea and rail) was very strongly penalised by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. However, as consumer spending picked up in 2021, international trade rebounded significantly, and the volume of trade exceeded 2019 levels. The World Trade Monitor (which measures global goods trade) increased by 8.2% year-on-year (YoY) in August 2021, and is roughly 4.5% higher than it was prior to the pandemic. Global sea freight has thus been impacted: the container throughput index (a measure of the volume of maritime container transport, which accounts for 60% of global container traffic) has been increasing and reached 124.8 seasonally adjusted points in September 2021. Air cargo (measured in tonne-kilometre) volumes were 9.1% higher in September 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. The surge in global demand put upward pressure on transportation prices, especially that of containers, which has been lacking in capacity and failing to meet demand. Transportation costs, on the other hand, have been impacted by the persistently high 2021 oil prices, and may further feed transportation price increases.
Air passenger traffic is not expected to fully recover until 2024, as travel restrictions still weigh on global air mobility. Despite vaccine rollouts, the emergence of new variants significantly hampers the number of commercial flights (most significantly international ones), and as of September 2021, the available seat kilometres (ASKs) fell by 43.6% relative to the same period in 2019.
In the longer-term, the sector should continue to benefit from mobility needs, the emergence of the Indian and Chinese middle classes and the reduction of costs thanks to technical progress, especially in the air and maritime segments.
The grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, following crashes in October 2018 and March 2019, affected Boeing’s financial health in 2020, as well as the financial health of the many airlines (particularly U.S. airlines companies) that use these planes and that have mechanically experienced a temporary reduction in the size of their fleets. However, on 18 November 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorised the return of the 737 MAX to American skies, and so did Europe in early 2021. China has yet to approve the return to service, but is expected to do so by early 2022. The outlook for the related air companies remains difficult as new waves and rising COVID-19 cases impede on the recovery. Both Boeing and Airbus ramped up their production, but the demand for planes should only be increasing as the COVID-19 situation eases.
Environmental concerns and measures implemented to combat the emission of greenhouse gases or pollutants could penalise the sector.
SEA FREIGHT RATES SOARED IN 2021
Sector Economic Insights
The transport sector is impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and supply chain disruptions
In 2021, economic activity rebounded as vaccine rollouts improved the global outlook. Coface estimates point at a 5.6% world GDP growth rate for 2021. The resumption of activity had a positive impact on world trade, which had fallen drastically in 2020. Both sea and air freight are being mechanically impacted by the increase.
Thus, the maritime transport of goods (which represents 90% of traded goods) recovered: the average value of the container throughput index increased steadily through 2021 and maritime transport is now under stress because of insufficient container capacity. Supply chains are disrupted and major shipping hubs face high levels of congestion, creating significant delays.
In consequence, shipping costs have risen: the Harpex Index (a measure of container rates) is reaching decade highs. The supply chain disruption and the underlying issues are likely to persist through the beginning of 2022, as on the supply side, capacity increase will take time. The Baltic Dry Index, which tracks dry bulk rates, on the other hand has been falling in H2 2021, because of declining Chinese iron imports.
Air cargo (measured in tonne-kilometer) was up by 15.1% YoY in September 2021, and by 9.1% relative to the same period prior to the pandemic. Air cargo benefits from the increased shipment costs and make air transport more convenient for businesses that seek to avoid long delays and that are willing to pay a premium.
Passenger air transport has been very strongly impacted by the health crisis: as of September 2021, international traffic (measured in Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPK)) decreased by 53.4% relatively to pre-crisis level, according to IATA.
Estimating the effect on rail freight is more complicated: in some economies, rail freight initially declined because of COVID-19, as it is complementary to air and sea freight, in the sense that rail freight is used (alongside road freight) to move goods to and from airports and ports. However, as consumer spending picked up during 2021, and long-distance trade recovered, rail freight now faces capacity and congestion issues. Rail freight is facing significant delays and lower transport capacity, which is contributing to the supply chain bottlenecks.
A difficult recovery for the transport sector
At the global level, pandemic containment and vaccination rollouts contributed to the recovery of consumer spending. As such, international trade strongly rebounded, markedly increasing transportation costs, as capacity did not follow the sudden surge in demand.
The airline market is still expected to be the most impacted by the crisis, because of the disruption in international travel. The emergence of new variants and the possible reimplementation of travel restrictions pose a threat to financial performance recovery of the airline industry.
According to IATA, this market recorded an USD 126.4 billion loss in 2020. The losses in the industry have been decreasing throughout Q1 2021 and Q2 2021, as cargo revenues showed a strong performance because of demand and yield dynamics. In Q3, 2021, EBIT margin of the industry was about -2% of the revenues, IATA reported. Furthermore, the industry has been negatively impacted by the drastic increase in fuel prices.
According to IATA, in Q3 2021, passenger revenues were down by 34% relatively to Q3 2019. While cargo revenues are up by 65%, total revenue is still significantly below the pre-crisis levels (by 29%). Operating costs are also lower, but the decrease in costs is in sufficient to offset the fall in revenue. For 2021, IATA estimates the total loss at around USD 47.7 billion.
In Europe, air transport, particularly the low-cost segment, is facing a strong overcapacity problem, reducing companies’ margins and making them more sensitive to the economic environment and oil price variations. A significant number of airlines went bankrupt in 2019 (WOW air, XL Airways, to name but a few), undermined by the sharp fluctuations in oil prices and the economic slowdown. The COVID-19 crisis could accelerate this trend in the short-term. However, these insolvencies could reduce overcapacity in this market in the long-term, consolidating it and enabling companies to increase their margins.
Environmental concerns are disrupting the sector
In order to fight pollution and address environmental concerns, several measures have been implemented to reduce the impact of the transport sector on health and on the environment. For instance, IATA set itself the objective of halving its CO2 emissions by 2050 (compared to their 2005 level), the European Parliament voted in early 2019 to reduce CO2 emissions from heavy goods vehicles by 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030, and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has set a new limit on sulphur oxide emissions from ships. The latter measure, known as IMO 2020, took effect on 1 January 2020 and limits sulphur emissions to 0.5% (or 5kg per tonne of fuel) compared to 3.5% previously.
Ships have several options for complying with IMO 2020. First, they can use low sulphur fuel oil (LSFO) or marine gas oil (MGO), which will be more expensive than the previously used high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO) due to higher production costs. They also have the option of continuing to use HSFO, if they install purifiers that enable them to emit no more than 0.5% sulphur oxide, but installation is time-consuming and costly. Estimates of the number of ships with purifiers as of 1 January vary between 2,000 and 4,000 ships, while the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates the global fleet at over 95,000. Finally, it is possible to use liquefied natural gas (LNG), even though this option seems unlikely in the short-term, as not all ports are able to supply ships with LNG. Therefore, the most likely option for ships in the short-term is the use of LSFO or MGO. In any case, IMO 2020 will penalise shipping companies through the increased costs it induces. The negative effects of IMO 2020 will be all the more significant as the measure comes into force in a context of economic slowdown and deterioration in world trade.
The environmental concerns of consumers are leading some of them to stop flying and look for alternatives to air transport. This movement, known as “flygskam” (literally “the shame of flying”) is spreading throughout Europe and the United States, and could have a lasting impact on air passenger transport.
Last update : June 2023