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NEW DELHI : India’s commercial airlines are seeing a steady increase in freight operations as demand for transporting cargo by air is nearing pre-covid levels, outpacing the growth in passenger traffic.

Indian airports saw a 29% growth in cargo shipments to 264,510 tonnes in August from a year earlier, according to the latest available data from the Airports Authority of India (AAI). While the figure is still lower than the 289,470 tonnes of cargo transported in August 2019, airline executives said it is only a matter of months before air cargo exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

“Cargo is expected to recover to pre-covid levels in a month or two. Passenger traffic is also picking up pace and should reach 2019-levels by the March quarter," a senior official with a Gurgaon-based airline said on condition of anonymity.

Airlines reconfigured a part of their fleet during the pandemic to meet cargo demand amid a sharp drop in passenger traffic. Carriers such as IndiGo and SpiceJet have dedicated freight carriers, while others typically carry cargo on their aircraft belly.

IndiGo is also in the process of inducting four Airbus A321ceo aircraft, each of which will be converted from a passenger jet to a full freighter configuration.

IndiGo’s cargo revenue rose 9.6% in the financial year ended 31 March, the company said during a quarterly earnings call with investors in July. Similarly, SpiceJet said its cargo revenue soared fivefold during the same period. Cargo yields have been very good for the past 12 months, IndiGo’s chief executive Ronojoy Dutta said in the conference call with analysts in July.

“The overall dynamic is that there used to be a lot of wide bodies (aircraft) flying around. Since the wide-body count has gone down, there is a demand for cargo traffic, and that’s what we are tapping into," Dutta said.

“But, it’s not like cargo traffic overall has improved," Dutta added.

While the outlook for the cargo business remains positive, growth in some of the key demand drivers has slowed recently, and pandemic-related constraints have increased pressure on available cargo capacity, International Air Transport Association (Iata), an airline industry body, said in a statement last week.

“One of the main challenges to further economic growth is a severe global supply chain congestion resulting from pandemic restrictions," it added.

In India, the growth in cargo business will be relief to airlines that are restricted in terms of selling more seats on scheduled passenger domestic flights. Airlines are currently allowed to operate only up to 85% of their pre-covid capacity on local routes.

Meanwhile, global demand for air cargo rose 7.7% in August from a year earlier, Iata said.

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