Global air passenger traffic continued a steady recovery in the first half of this year, rising 20.3 percent over the same period in 2003, the International Air Transport Association (search) said Wednesday.

Cargo traffic rose 13 percent, the Geneva-based federation said.

The airline industry has been hit hard by a sluggish economy, rising fuel prices and travel fears related to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the conflict in Iraq .

"The industry's traffic performance in recent months is impressive," said IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani.

"If current growth trends prevail, and barring any unforeseen event, we could end the year with double digit growth, surpassing our March expectation of 7.5 percent for the year," he said in a statement.

Still, the organization cautioned that the high price of jet fuel threatens the airline industry's recovery.

"Oil prices (search) remain approximately $6 per barrel above anticipated levels for 2004, which adds up to $6 billion in costs to the industry," the group said in a statement. Oil currently costs around $42 a barrel.

Traffic grew in all regions, said IATA, which groups more than 270 airlines, covering 95 percent of global air travel.

Middle Eastern carriers posted a jump of 44.3 percent for passenger traffic, while the increase in Asia was 35 percent. North American passenger traffic was up 20.1 percent. The European figure was 12.8 percent.

The organization didn't release the total number of passenger-miles flown.

IATA noted that traffic figures were especially low last year because the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS (search), frightened off many travelers.

SARS had the greatest effect on Asian air travel. The disease struck hard in March 2003, infecting more than 8,000 people worldwide and killing 774, the vast majority in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Sept. 11 attacks and war in Iraq have also depressed recent passenger traffic.

"Compared with 2000, which was the last normal year for the industry, half-year traffic results are more sobering," said IATA. Passenger traffic from January to June this year was up just 8.4 percent on the first six months of 2000, while cargo rose 16.2 percent.