It is too early to predict a soft landing for airlines in 2012, according to the boss of IATA in the wake of improved passenger carryings last year.

Director general and chief executive Tony Tyler described 2011 as a “year of contrasts” despite international air travel rising by 6.9% last year.

This reflected strong growth of 6.2% between February and July, compared to just 1.2% between September and December. International capacity climbed 8.2%, pushing the passenger load factor down to 77.4%.

International traffic climbed 6.4% in December year on year, in part owing to depressed traffic levels in 2010 in North America and Europe, and rose 1.4% compared to November.

European carriers posted the second highest growth rates in 2011, behind only Latin American airlines.

Demand in Europe rose by 9.5% while capacity climbed 10.2%, resulting in a load factor of 78.9%. December traffic rose 9.8% but this was surpassed by a 10.3% rise in capacity.

“Europe’s strong performance is somewhat surprising in light of the European sovereign debt crisis; however European airlines have benefited from robust business travel in long-haul markets, in part related to strong exports from northern Europe,” according to IATA.

Tyler said: “Given the weak conditions in western economies the passenger market held up well in 2011.

“But overall 2011 was a year of contrasts. Healthy passenger growth, primarily in the first half of the year, was offset by a declining cargo market.

“Optimism in China contrasted with gloom in Europe. Ironically, the weak euro supported business travel demand.

“But Europe’s primarily tax and restrict approach to aviation policy left the continent’s carriers with the weakest profitability among the industry’s major regions. Cautious improving business confidence is good news. But 2012 is still going to be a tough year.”

Tyler added: “Improving business confidence and encouraging news from the US economy are heartening developments.

“But it is far too early to start predicting a soft landing for 2012. The eurozone crisis is far from over. Failure to achieve a durable solution will have dire consequences for economies around the world. And it would most certainly tip the airline industry into the red.

“Airlines have made massive investments in new fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly aircraft. The challenge is to deploy them profitably into a dynamic and uncertain market.”

Tyler called for governments to take a strategic view of the airline industry “that recognises its value as a catalyst for economic growth”.

“Airlines transport about three billion people a year. And over a third of the value of goods that are traded internationally is transported by air,” he said. “Getting people and goods to their destinations more efficiently improves competitiveness.

“Infrastructure investments to enable aircraft to land and take-off with a minimum of delay and fly the most fuel and carbon efficient trajectories will return a far greater payout to global GDP than short-sighted and narrowly-focused tax grabs.”