Shippers and businesses worldwide—especially in Asia—appear to have shifted the way they move items and goods. Earlier this year FedEx reported its third straight year-over-year decline in quarterly net profit, and blamed much of the drop on a massive move away from the company's most premium, highest-speed services.

It's not that FedEx's aircraft are empty. It's just that, instead of paying to ship something overnight, companies are increasingly paying less to ship something more slowly. Delivery is still guaranteed, just not as fast—and importantly, not nearly as expensive.

UPS has been reporting the same trend. And both companies, as well as air cargo industry observers, believe the trend may be permanent. Shippers are doing a little more planning and spending money more wisely. FedEx and UPS are strong companies with diversified product offerings, so they can certainly adjust. (FedEx announced last March that it will cut capacity to/from Asia.) But both are likely doing some serious thinking about how they price and market their offerings.

Industry Numbers Aren't Pretty

The air carriers are hungry for any good news after five years of stagnation. The level of international airfreight traffic was essentially the same in 2012 as 2007.

 "We've had 12 years [of data dating back to 2000], almost two-thirds of a 20-year forecast period, where air cargo has only averaged 3%" annual traffic growth, says Air Cargo Management Group (ACMG) managing director Robert Dahl. That's about half of the 6% annual growth rate experienced by the industry until the middle part of the last decade. 

"It's reasonable to expect that 3% could be what the new normal will be," Dahl adds. After rebounding from back-to-back down years with a 20% uptick in 2010, global air cargo traffic fell 0.7% in 2011 and was down 1.9% through the first nine months of 2012, according to IATA.  

United Parcel Service's 2012 third-quarter revenue was down 0.7% year-over-year to $13.07 billion as the delivery giant contended with what chairman and CEO Scott Davis characterizes as "an environment of slowing global trade." CFO Kurt Kuehn told analysts that UPS customers continue to "migrate to less premium products." 

Similarly, FedEx chairman, president and CEO Fred Smith said in recent public comments that "some customers are trading off speed for cost savings," adding the trend "will continue for the foreseeable future, likely even when economic conditions improve." 

IATA analysts, at the organization's outlook briefing in mid-December, confirmed a gloomy forecast for the cargo business, with asset utilization continuing to decline. But IATA chief economist Brian Pearce noted there were signs of U.S. consumers becoming more confident, which could "help put a floor under" goods migrating to surface transport. 

Air cargo "yields are going down and capacity is ample … there's overcapacity," Accenture senior manager Marcus Fromm says. "There's very little appetite and courage in [the air cargo] industry to really do the next step of innovation. Little increases in fuel prices have a huge impact [on whether an air cargo route is profitable. Airfreight operators need to be] applying more intelligence on how you sell and what you sell. The industry needs to come off this kind of attitude about complaining about the volatility" and provide a higher value proposition to shippers. 

Dahl adds, "One of the issues that operators of freighters face today is the high price of fuel. There's only one revenue stream—from the cargo you carry—and there's downward pressure on yields. The airlines are sort of caught in a bind. It's difficult to generate enough revenue with a freighter to make it profitable." 

Prospects are not expected to improve soon, he concludes. "With all the economic uncertainty that the world faces, it's hard to see how we'll establish [sustained, positive air cargo growth in the near-term]."