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A West Jet Boeing 737-700 aircraft (L) departs Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, British Columbia February 9, 2011.

© Andy Clark / Reuters/Reuters

Economic uncertainty didn't keep customers from flying in 2012.

Air passenger traffic last year increased by 5.3 per cent, driven by growing demand in emerging markets, the International Air Transport Association said Thursday.

"Passenger demand grew strongly in 2012 despite the economic bad news that dominated much of the last twelve months. This demonstrates just how integral global air travel is for today's connected world," IATA's director general and chief executive officer Tony Tyler said in a news release.

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The 5.3 per cent increase was slightly down on 2011 growth of 5.9 per cent but above the 20-year average of 5 per cent, the agency said.

Load factors in 2012 posted near record levels of 79.1 per cent. Load factor is a measure of what proportion of seats an airline is able to fill.

The good news on the passenger side was offset somewhat by a 1.5 per cent dip in the air cargo market last year.

Near-record passenger load factors show how carefully airlines around the world are managing capacity, said Mr. Tyler.

In Canada, the major airlines demonstrated last year how to strike a careful balance in matching capacity with demand and offer an airfare range appropriate to a tough economic climate and high consumer debt.

Air Canada's load factor was 82.7 per cent, up from 81 per cent in 2011.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. said its load factor for the year came in at 82.8 per cent, compared with 79.7 per cent the previous year.

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"Growth and high aircraft utilization combined to help airlines deliver an estimated $6.7-billion (U.S.) profit in 2012 despite high fuel prices. But with a net profit margin of just 1.0 per cent the industry is only just keeping its head above water," said Mr. Tyler.

Air cargo suffered the one-two punch of declining world trade and a shift in goods traded to bulk commodities more suited to sea shipping, he said.

The strongest passenger growth came from the Middle East (15.4 per cent), Latin America (8.4 per cent) and Africa (7.5 per cent), according to IATA data.

International market demand expanded at a faster rate (6.0 per cent) than domestic travel (4.0 per cent), says the Geneva-based organization.

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