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Global air passenger numbers were surprisingly strong in July, while freight markets stagnated and the end of 2011 is still expected to be weak, the International Air Transport Association said on Thursday.

International passenger traffic rose 5.9 per cent in July year-on-year, while freight traffic fell 0.4 per cent, mainly due to weakness in the Asia-Pacific region following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, IATA said.

The rise in passenger numbers in July meant airlines filled 83.1 per cent of available seats, even though capacity – "available seat kilometres" – rose by 5.4 per cent.

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Planes were fullest in North America, where the "passenger load factor" was 86.8 per cent in July, though that was also the region with the smallest increase in available capacity.

IATA said the increase in international passenger travel, which went beyond the normal seasonal fluctuation caused by holidays in the northern hemisphere, probably reflected optimism earlier in the year. The outlook, however, looked less rosy.

"With business and consumer confidence now tanking, sluggishness in international trade, and high fuel prices, the expectation is for a weaker end to the year. We are already seeing this in the shrinking air freight markets, which were 0.4 per cent down on the previous year," Tony Tyler, IATA's Director General and CEO, said in a statement.

Governments are partly to blame, he said.

"Some of our challenges have a high percentage of government-made content. The recent downsizing of Air Berlin is a clear reminder of the high cost of the German departure tax on the economy, jobs and communities.

"Governments should not compromise aviation's role as an economic catalyst for the short-term revenue gain of gratuitous taxation – particularly when economies remain weak," said Mr. Tyler.

Domestic passenger numbers were much weaker than international figures, largely because of the slump in Japan, where passenger traffic fell 16.7 per cent from July 2010.

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However, Indian and Brazilian domestic passenger traffic leapt by 20.6 per cent and 17.8 per cent, respectively. But the biggest markets, the United States and China, were sluggish. U.S. growth was 2.1 per cent, while Chinese traffic growth "slowed abruptly" to 5.1 per cent, IATA said.

In freight markets, the overall fall of 0.4 per cent since July 2010 reflected a 3.9 per cent decline in the Asia-Pacific region and a 0.5 per cent slip in Europe, which together outweighed single digit growth elsewhere in the world.

"Freight load factors have declined significantly (1.8 percentage points) to the pre-recession level of 45.0 per cent. Asia-Pacific carriers, the largest in the market, have seen load factors slip to 58.1 per cent (from 60.2 per cent in July 2010)," IATA said.

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