Australia’s hidden economic generator – airfreight seen as ‘vitally important’ to Australian economy

A new report has highlighted the economic value of bellyhold air cargo to the Australian economy, a multi-billion industry that has historically gone unnoticed in the broader trade debate and often overlooked.

The study from Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and BIS Oxford Economics’ shows the goods travelling in the belly of international aircraft arriving and departing Australia were valued at AUD109 (USD77.2 billion) in FY2017/18 and is expected to reach AUD114 billion (USD80.8 billion) in FY2018/19.

The 2019 International Airfreight Indicator, the latest report in Infrastructure Partnerships Australia’s data and measurement series, reveals that one in every five dollars of Australia’s traded goods travels via air. The company is an independent think tank and executive member network providing policy research focused on excellence in social and economic infrastructure.

“Every day more than 550 international flights arrive and depart Australia, yet until now, we have been remarkably blind to the value, the type of commodity, and the economic contribution of goods that travel in the belly of these aircraft,” says its CEO, Adrian Dwyer.

The 2019 International Airfreight Indicator shines a light on the sector and describes airports as “crucial to our trade story” and the cargo transported beneath passengers as “vitally important to airlines, airports and the Australian economy”.

While airfreight only represents 1% of Australia’s trade volume, “it punches well above its weight in value,” it says with one in every AUD5 of Australia’s imports and exports travelling via airports – making the airfreight sector one of the largest value contributors to Australia’s trade position.

Its findings show that Australia’s largest air gateways – Brisbane Airport, Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, Perth Airport and Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport – accounted for 96% of the country’s international airfreight in FY2018. More than 80% of this airfreight is carried in passenger aircraft with the amount of goods flowing in and out by air is now 70kg for every person – a 60% rise in the last five years.

CHART – Air imports and exports in Australia reached a record high in FY2017-18, equivalent to 70kg and 71 kg per capita respectively, which has grown strongly since 2004Source: IPA/BISOE based on ABS statistics from the 2019 International Airfreight Indicator

In line with the release of this report, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia has called on Government to establish a dedicated freight body to independently measure and publish detailed analysis of the overall performance of the country’s logistic and supply chain networks.

“In a period of heightened trade tensions and structural economic change, it’s critical that we use data to improve the way we plan, regulate and invest in our freight sector. Without useful data to examine and measure our freight sector we will be flying blind on our international trade,” explains Mr Dwyer.

The analysis shows exports increased more than imports in FY2017-18 relative to FY2016-17. However, exports growth expected to ease to 1.6% in value and 2.4% in volume compared to imports (6.2% and 4.7%respectively) for FY2018-19. More than half of the growth in airfreight exports over FY2017-18 can be attributed to booming demand for food products from China.

While airfreight to a large degree relies on passenger yield on routes, often the revenue generated from freight carried in the belly of passenger aircraft can provide the necessary margin to sustain the commercial viability of any route. Yet, the importance of airfreight to the Australian economy continues to be overlooked and often misunderstood with the focus almost exclusively centred on passenger travel or seaborne freight.