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New world air cargo forecast calls for 5.9% annual growth, with the market tripling by 2029.

Air cargo rises again

Boeing analysts discussing the air cargo market could be describing whiplash.

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World air cargo traffic from 2000 - 2010.

"We went from a severe drop to a strident snapback," Tom Crabtree, who oversees Boeing's cargo industry forecasting effort, said.

Contraction of air traffic growth approached nearly 30 percent in some months in the first half of 2009 (For all of 2009, traffic fell 11.3%). Then, air freight swung back to grow by 24 percent in the first eight months of 2010 - putting the industry right back on the trend line from which it so dramatically departed when the world slipped into economic crisis.

"The strong rebound is expected to propel world cargo traffic to regain the peak it attained in 2007 by the end of 2010," the forecast said.

Air cargo traffic is considered a leading economic indicator, often preceding a recovery by three to six months.

In addition to near-term gains, the world air cargo traffic picture also remains upbeat over the long run. The just-released 2010-2011 Boeing World Air Cargo Forecast predicts the market will triple over the next 20 years, growing an average of 5.9 percent a year over year 2009 levels.

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Tom Crabtree oversees Boeing's world air cargo forecast.

The bottom line for airline customers, Crabtree said, is that "cargo revenues for our airline customers have recovered from the unprofitable lows of 2009, and the airlines with a focus on freight are on course to have a better year financially in 2010."

Air cargo traffic is considered a leading economic indicator, often preceding a recovery by three to six months, Crabtree said.

As in the broader aviation market, Asia is driving growth. China's air cargo will grow 9.2 percent per year, while other intra-Asia markets will grow at 7.9 percent per year. Growth in other regions, while still robust, will stay more in line with the worldwide average.

The 5.9 percent average annual growth Boeing projects for the next 20 years is a slight increase over previous forecasts, indicating more firmness in a recovery.

Forecast expects world's air cargo fleet to grow from 1,755 airplanes in 2009 to 2,967 airplanes in 2029.

Boeing predicted 5.4 percent growth per year in its 2009 forecast; in 2008, it foresaw annual growth of 5.8 percent. The economic downturn during those years led to the less optimistic numbers.

As air cargo traffic grows, so too must the fleet of cargo airplanes. Thus, Boeing's forecast expects the world's air cargo fleet to grow by more than two-thirds over the next two decades, expanding from 1,755 airplanes in 2009 to 2,967 airplanes in 2029.

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A new wing design and more efficient engines give the 747-8 freighter the lowest operating cost of any large airplane.

That market will be led by a shift toward widebody freighters as cargo carriers seek to increase freighter payloads.

"Well over half of all additions to the fleet will be in widebody (medium and large freighter) categories," according to the forecast. Traffic will continue to build on long-haul, international trade lanes, the report said.

Though 70 percent of freighter fleet growth will be from passenger or combination airplanes being modified into full freighter airplanes, the new-build sector still offers plenty of opportunity: The report values the new-airplane market for freighters at U.S. $180 billion.

Crabtree said large factory-built planes will be more preferable as customers seek better range and operating costs and the lowest possible unit costs.