International air passenger traffic rose by 19.4 percent between January and May this year compared with the same period last year, the global airlines body IATA said on Monday.

Freight traffic over the same five months was up 12.2 percent, according to figures released by the Geneva-based grouping, the International Air Transport Association (search).

"Not only have we recovered from the impact of SARS and war in Iraq, all major regions of the world are reporting traffic levels above those of 2000, the last normal year for our industry," said Director-General Giovanni Bisignani.

In May alone, passengers on all international routes were up 38 percent on May last year when the industry was suffering from the impact of the SARS (search) flu-type epidemic that swept across Asia and reached Canada and fallout from the invasion of Iraq.

For Asian airlines, IATA said, the recovery was even more dramatic. Traffic there in May was up by 108 percent on that of the same month last year, indicating that the "SARS effect" was well and truly overcome.

IATA said the January-May figures showed passenger traffic up 8.8 percent over the same period in 2000, just before the onset of a global economic downturn which set the industry on a steep downward path.

That decline was sharpened by growing global political instability after the Sept. 11, 2001 (search) attacks on the United States, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global terrorism, and the SARS crisis.

Earlier this year airline chiefs feared that steep rises in oil prices would hit the industry's overall global bottom line, but Bisignani, in a statement on the figures, said a recent decline had helped improve the situation.

But efficiency gains and cost-cutting would have to remain priorities for airlines if the industry was to return to full health, he declared.

IATA said that despite the shocks that had rocked the industry over the past four years, its underlying growth rate was 3.6 percent a year. However, this is still only half the rate achieved during the later 1990s.

Of the major regions apart from Asia, North America saw a passenger growth of 32.8 percent in the first five months of this year over January-May 2003 and Europe saw an increase of 19.1 percent, according to IATA.

In the Middle East, traffic was up by 43.9 percent, and in Latin America by 11.5 percent January-May. In Africa the increase was 8.3 percent.