Hong Kong, China (CNN) – With a Greek debt deal successfully brokered on Tuesday, the world’s economic skies seem a bit less likely to fall. That new $173 billion bailout for Greece on the brink of bankruptcy is now staunching a bit of the hemorrhage of confidence in the continent.
As for the “stuff” that actually flies through those economic skies? The volume of that over our heads, homes and offices is, in fact, falling.
And Hong Kong is one of the best places to take a measure of it all.
This Asian hub of commerce boasts the busiest air cargo airport in the world. And air cargo volumes are an excellent thermometer to gauge the health of global trade.
According to Hong Kong airport data, 3.9 million tons of cargo passed through this Chinese territory in 2011. But for all that volume, the huge number actually revealed a drop of nearly 5% year on year.
Just as Hong Kong is the world’s number one cargo hub, Cathay Pacific Airways is the world’s number one air cargo carrier. In 2011, Hong’s Kong’s flagship airline transported more than 1.6 million tons of cargo around the world. But that represented a drop as well – of nearly 9% year on year.
The reason for this season of slumps is found not in Asia but halfway around the world: in the United States and Europe.
The U.S. is still clawing back from its Great Recession.
Europe, which buys 30% of all of China’s exports, is still focused on its highly-indebted nations. And for the next several months and years, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy– and yes Greece- will still be the word.
It’s a decline in demand from all these places – for cheaper Asian-assembled electronics and your Wal-Mart apparel – that led to a slump in air cargo traffic last year.
And the 2012 skies don’t look much brighter.
The International Air Transport Association, more famously known as IATA, forecasts absolutely no growth for global air cargo traffic this year.
Cathay Pacific’s CEO John Slosar predicts his company’s air cargo business might not take off again until the second half. That’s not great news since the company relies on cargo for 30% of its annual profit.
And some oil analysts foretell of $150 per barrel ifIrantensions boil over into conflict.
All this may be conspiring for a collision course with catastrophe. But reroutes do exist.
To offset losses, airlines have successfully booked more people into their seats. Cathay reported nearly 12% more passengers this past January, year on year.
That’s on top of rising ticket prices as any flier – frequent or not – can attest.
And just this past December, Cathay announced it would delay the purchase of two new Boeing 747-8F freighters until 2013.
The bottom line for the air cargo industry? Despite short-term fixes, its long-term recovery will depend on the pace of improvement in the U.S. and Europe.
Until then, better profits from global air cargo will hang on a wing and a prayer.
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