SINGAPORE - Changi Airport is flying high again in air cargo flow, with two years of pandemic-induced global disruptions giving way to rising demand fuelled by supply chain disruptions and an online shopping boom.
According to data provided by Changi Airport Group (CAG) on Friday (Dec 31), total airfreight throughput from January to November in 2021 hit 1.76 million tonnes - 96 per cent of the 1.84 million tonnes reached over the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.
It was also a 26 per cent jump from the 1.4 million tonnes moved from January to November 2020, when throughput for the full year fell to 1.54 million tonnes - from 2.01 million tonnes in 2019 - at the height of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns worldwide.
CAG noted that throughput for September and October last year surpassed 2019 benchmarks, with air imports and exports from January to November last year exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 8 per cent.
Air imports, exports and transshipments are the primary components of air cargo movements.
As at the first week of December 2021, Changi Airport was registering some 1,000 weekly scheduled and charter cargo flights - including passenger aircraft converted to carry cargo in their holds - connecting the hub to more than 70 cities.
This is a more than threefold increase compared with December 2019.
Last year, more than 50 passenger airlines launched more than 23,000 flights carrying only cargo to and from Changi Airport.
There were more than 540 weekly freighter-only flights as at the first week of December, a rise of 72 per cent from December 2019.
The introduction of new freighter operators to Changi Airport over the past two years has helped minimise supply chain disruptions by supporting the flow of essential goods such as personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals and food supplies, said CAG.
Most recently, on Dec 25, South Korean budget carrier Air Premia launched a weekly flight from Incheon city to Singapore using converted passenger planes to bring in Covid-19 test kits, e-commerce goods, fabric, and agricultural products including strawberries.
Outbound cargo includes perfumes, cosmetics, food products and electronic parts.
Air imports and exports between Singapore and South Korea grew by 6 per cent for the January-to-November period last year, compared with 2019.
Air Premia follows the addition of Australia's Tasman Cargo in June and India's SpiceJet in February last year, as well as China's YTO Cargo in November 2020 and American airline Kalitta in April earlier that year.
There was also the reinstatement of scheduled freighter flights in 2020 by China's SF Airlines in August and Turkish Cargo in October.
"Singapore is a key air hub in Asia, at the centre of passenger and cargo traffic, thus Changi was chosen as a priority destination for Asia," said Mr Sean C. Kang, Air Premia's senior executive vice-president of air cargo business.
He added that the carrier expects to handle transshipments in future, and operate passenger flights once Singapore's quarantine-free Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) programme is extended to Air Premia.
In October, to meet surging e-commerce demand, delivery giant FedEx Express doubled its weekly flights between Sydney and Singapore, and added a new weekly flight connecting the city-state with Paris.
Mr Lim Ching Kiat, managing director of CAG's air hub development, acknowledged that the pandemic's severe impact on the aviation industry has taken a toll on business.
Changi Airport's latest annual report ending March 2021 revealed that the hub had sunk into the red for the first time, with large percentage drops across the board in passenger traffic, aircraft movement and retail operations. Air cargo's dip of 23 per cent was less significant in comparison.
"Changi Airport Group has worked closely with industry partners to facilitate airfreight movements, which has supported the Singapore economy and ensured the flow of essential goods globally," said Mr Lim. "With our partners, we are also driving efforts to digitise the air cargo supply chain and build long-term resilience with a stronger freighter network.
"These efforts will strengthen the Changi air cargo hub to meet the challenges of tomorrow."
Changi Airport's recovery reflects the latest air cargo trends reported by the International Air Transport Association, which in December noted that global demand as at October last year was up 9.4 per cent compared with 2019. This growth was 3.6 per cent for Asia-Pacific markets.
Noting an "overall positive outlook", the global airline body's director-general Willie Walsh pointed to increased passenger travel bringing more belly capacity for air cargo.
But he also warned of government responses to the new Covid-19 variant Omicron - understood to be more transmissible though less severe than the Delta variant - dampening travel demand.
"After almost two years of Covid-19, governments have the experience and tools to make better data-driven decisions than the mostly knee-jerk reactions to restrict travel that we have seen to date," said Mr Walsh.
Singapore has suspended until Jan 20 the sale of tickets for arriving flights and buses under its VTL programme, as it braces itself for an Omicron wave which experts expect to dwarf that of the earlier Delta strain in number of infections.