Copyright 2004, Air Cargo World Magazine

To listen to some in the air freight industry tell it, the corner has been turned and the hard times of recent years are now merely bad memories. The future, in this estimation, will be an endless stream of bullish growth.

For sure, many economic signs are pointing upward and the recent Boeing forecast calling for robust 6.2 percent average annual air cargo traffic growth over the next 20 years should not, by any means, be dismissed.

But these are highly uncertain times. An industry whose fortunes are so inexorably tied to the course of world events would do well to take a cautious outlook on the future.

Terrorism, wars and SARS-like epidemics are by nature extremely unpredictable. Even the "sure thing" that everyone in air cargo is counting on - the continued opening of the vast Chinese market and the Gold Rush to serve its hundreds of millions of emerging consumers - carries with it a host of uncertainties.

China is building a massive, modern, multibillion-dollar transportation infrastructure, including a new highway system and new airports. That's good news for transport operators looking to move goods throughout the nation. But it also means China's energy requirements are still in their infancy - something to think about as the world copes with escalating oil prices that are hitting transport operators especially hard.

China is set to announce a new fuel oil import policy next month and is expected to abolish its strict quota system for crude and oil imports, potentially opening the door for a big increase in its intake of the world's energy resources.

The emergence of China as a major player in the international marketplace is justifiably exciting. Just ask FedEx, UPS, Northwest Airlines and Polar Air Cargo, all recently awarded additional or new U.S.-China cargo frequencies and all breathlessly launching freighter flights to the Middle Kingdom.

But with global oil production and distribution a big concern now, what happens when the people living in the world's most populous nation really start using those highways and airports?

This is shaping up to be the best year for world air cargo traffic growth since 1997. Those in the industry that endured the turmoil of 2001 and the haltingly slow growth of 2002 and 2003 deserve to celebrate and look towards 2005 and beyond with hope.

But as Korean Air Cargo President Ken Choi warns, "This year was too good. I don't expect 2005 to be as strong." Choi's temperate assessment is worth keeping in mind for air cargo executives planning for an uncertain future.