The political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa curbed global air cargo growth to 2.3 percent in February from a year ago, the International Air Transport Association said.
The slowdown from an 8.7 percent year-on-year increase in January also reflected the impact of factory closures due to the Chinese New Year vacation, which fell in the first part of February, according to IATA.
February's growth was the weakest since the beginning of the third quarter of 2009 when annual growth rates turned positive as the global economy moved out of recession.
North American carriers bucked the trend with freight volume expanding 11.8 percent in February following a 14.1 percent increase in January.
"As the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia spreads across the Middle East and North Africa, demand growth is taking a step back," IATA Chief Executive Officer Giovanni Bisignani said.
"The tragic earthquake and its aftermath in Japan will most certainly see a further dampening of demand," Bisignani added.
February freight volume is at the same level as the pre-recession cycle peak in early 2008 but is down almost 7 percent from the high in May 2010 at the peak of business re-stocking.
The global cargo load factor deteriorated to 51.6 percent, four percentage points below the peak in May.
But "industry fundamentals are strong," IATA said. "Business confidence, as measured by the purchasing managers' index, reached its second highest level in February."
Asia-Pacific airlines carried 4.5 percent less cargo in February than a year ago and 8.4 percent less than in January due largely to factory closures in China.
African carriers' February traffic was down 5.7 percent from the same period in 2010 and 8.4 percent less in absolute volume than in January.
Latin America was the best performing region with its airlines boosting February freight shipments 12.1 percent.
European air cargo grew a more modest 6.3 percent, reflecting the region's proximity to and trade connections with North Africa and the continuing weakness in its economy.
"The industry situation is volatile and we are watching higher fuel prices carefully," Bisignani said. "With looser supply and demand conditions, it will be a challenge for airlines to recover the added costs of fuel."
Based on an average oil price of $96 per barrel, IATA estimates aviation fuel will account for 29 percent of average operating costs in 2011 with a total fuel bill of $166 billion.
For every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of crude, the industry must recover an additional $1.6 billion of costs, the Geneva-based group said.
-- Contact Bruce Barnard at email@example.com.