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GENEVA (Reuters) - Growing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa stifled air passenger traffic in February, reducing growth sharply from January levels, International Air Transport Association figures released on Tuesday showed.
International passenger traffic grew 6 percent compared with a year earlier, down from a revised 8.4 percent rise in January as would-be travellers delayed or postponed their journeys to the region, depressing monthly numbers.
"The political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa during February is estimated to have cut international traffic by about 1 percent. As such it is responsible almost entirely for the slippage in passenger demand growth," IATA said.
Air freight -- an important measure of world trade -- was also affected by the unrest, as well as by factory shutdowns due to the Chinese New Year, which occurred in the first part of February.
Air cargo traffic was up just 2.3 percent in February after rising 8.7 percent in January, IATA said in its monthly traffic figures.
Passenger volumes for February were 16 percent above the early 2009 low point, and around 5 percent up on the 2008 pre-recession peak, while cargo levels matched the early 2008 peak but were 7 percent down on the May 2010 high.
Rising oil prices, pushed up by concerns the unrest could disrupt oil supply from the Middle East, are also choking air traffic, adding to pressure on industry margins as capacity increases ahead of an expected rise in demand.
"With looser supply and demand conditions, it will be a challenge for airlines to recover the added cost of fuel," IATA Chief Executive Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement.
"Our pathetic 1.4 percent expected margin for 2011 is under considerable pressure."
IATA said for every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the industry needed to recover an extra $1.6 billion in additional costs.
The Japanese earthquake and ensuing concerns over a damaged nuclear power plant, combined with continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, are expected to squeeze March air traffic further.
"As the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia spreads across the Middle East and North Africa, demand growth across the region is taking a step back," Bisignani said.
"The tragic earthquake and its aftermath in Japan will most certainly see a further dampening of demand from March."
IATA represents 240 airlines operating 94 percent of all international traffic. Domestic flights are excluded from its data. (Reporting by Martin de Sa'Pinto; Editing by Hans Peters and Susan Fenton)