Hongkong Air Cargo Terminals (Hactl), the world's busiest international air-cargo handling firm, endured its worst annual throughput result on record last year, according to figures released yesterday. Executives are pinning hopes of a turnaround this year on signs of an economic recovery in the United States, Hactl's biggest market. Air-cargo volume moving through the firm's facility, which handles more than 80 per cent of Chek Lap Kok's tonnage, shrank almost 9 per cent year on year, to less than 1.6 million tonnes. Leading the decline were exports, traditionally Hactl's bread and butter, which fell 10.5 per cent year on year. The fall in import volume, down 9 per cent, was not far behind. Export volumes for last month, up 2.2 per cent, hinted at growing consumer confidence in markets that buy goods from south China, its key catchment area. It also was the first month in which Hactl showed year-on-year export growth since last February. Exports to the US in last month were up 1 per cent year on year, which analysts said was the reason for a degree of optimism, given that freight linked to that market led last year's export decline, falling 18.7 per cent. Marketing director Summit Chan said: 'There are some signs of a recovery, particularly in the export sectors. But we can only be cautiously optimistic about the sustainability of the recovery in light of the uncertainties in the US and regional markets.' Other export markets that had suffered include Europe, where demand fell almost 8 per cent year on year. Taiwan was off 15.5 per cent and South Korea 9.1 per cent. It was a singularly tough year for Hactl, and 2000's bullish freight numbers were always going to be a tough act to follow. It first had to contend with the adverse effects of a global recession and then the events of September 11 in the US. Spokeswoman Lilian Chan said: 'At the beginning of the year we were quite optimistic, so we are obviously not satisfied with the end result. But it has to be put in the context of the results from the overall aviation industry, not just cargo. After [September 11], we felt that the year-end decline may reach double digits, so this result has to be viewed in a more positive light.'