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Trade turbulence slows Asia air cargo for first time in 2.5 years

Leading indicator points to rough outlook for region's carriers and airports

Asia-Pacific airlines carried less cargo in November than they did a year earlier but still added more capacity. 

HONG KONG -- Airfreight traffic, often a leading indicator of trade trends, turned down in the Asia-Pacific region in November, the first fall in more than two-and-a-half years.

The drop is notable as the region is the busiest in the world for airfreight and home to many of the top cargo-handling airlines and airports. The decline comes amid a lull in U.S.-China trade tensions but suggests that worries about the outlook for more conflict or economic deceleration are already dampening activity.

Asia-Pacific carriers carried 2.3% less freight in November than they did a year earlier, according to data collected by the International Air Transport Association, a global airline trade group. This was the first monthly drop posted since March 2016 when the figures were distorted by the effects of a U.S. labor dispute. Global freight traffic was flat for the month.

"Weaker manufacturing conditions for exporters and shorter supplier delivery times particularly in China impacted the demand," the Transport Association said. In October, freight traffic had risen 2.1%.

The data comes as manufacturers around the region report weakening demand. Among 15 markets included in the Nikkei Purchasing Managers' Index, nine declined in December.

Cathay Pacific Airways, the largest Asian-based freight carrier, saw its freight load in November drop 1.3% to 185.14 million kilograms. "We face a great deal of demand uncertainty in the coming months due to geopolitical factors that have the potential to impact global trade flows," said Ronald Lam, the airline group's cargo director.

At Hong Kong International Airport, the world's busiest for freight and the home base of Cathay and its sister airlines, cargo throughput fell 2% to 466 million kg. Meanwhile, Cathay rival Singapore Airlines saw its freight load dip 1.2% to 116.7 million kg.

The Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines, which separately tracks data for 36 regional airlines, reported 0.1% growth in regional freight traffic for November. "The moderation in export activity with slowing business orders, contributed to the slowdown in air cargo growth for the month," said Andrew Herdman, the group's director general.

Despite the slowdown, the region's airlines continue to add capacity. By AAPA's count, freight capacity was 5.9% higher in November than a year earlier. As a result, capacity utilization fell to 65.2% from 69%.

Regional passenger traffic, meanwhile, continues to grow. AAPA reported a 6.5% gain on the passenger side, where capacity utilization improved to 79.3%.

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