Passenger demand for air travel experienced a slight recovery in 2021, according to figures released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), but remain far below 2019 levels.
According to IATA’s full year global passenger traffic results, demand for the year, measured in revenue passenger kilometres (RPK), was down 58.4 per cent compared with 2019 levels, but had risen compared to the RPK for 2020, which was 65.8 per cent below 2019 year-on-year.
International passenger demand for 2021 was 75.5 per cent below 2019 levels. Meanwhile, capacity for international flights (measured as available seat kilometres, or ASK) was down 65.3 per cent, with a load factor of 58 per cent.
Domestic demand in 2021 was in higher demand, at only 28.9 per cent below 2019 levels. Capacity for domestic flights was down 65.3 per cent, with a load factor of 74.3 per cent.
The airline industry’s recovery has not been felt equally across the world
African airlines reported the best performance for international traffic in 2021, with a fall of only 65.2 per cent compared with 2019. Capacity for the continent dropped 56.7 per cent, with load factor sinking 14.1 percentage points to 57.3 per cent.
However, demand fell in December on the continent due to the impact of government travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.
By contrast, full-year international traffic for Asia-Pacific airlines was down a devastating 93.2 per cent in 2021, compared with 2019. Full year capacity was also down 84.9 per cent compared with 2019, with load factor falling 44.3 percentage points to 36.5 per cent.
However, the region did experience a slight improvement in December, which saw a fall in international traffic of 87.5 per cent for the period compared with December 2019 – a rise compared with an 89.8-per-cent fall in November. The region also saw more positive results for domestic travel, with China’s domestic passenger traffic being only 24.4 per cent below 2019 figures.
Russia in particular also experienced an exceptional rise in domestic traffic of 24.2 per cent for the full year, and 23.2 per cent for the month of December. The country was the only market represented by IATA figures which saw a growth in RPKs in 2021 compared with 2019.
The Omicron Covid variant slowed airlines’ overall recovery in late 2021
IATA also said that the implementation of Omicron measures by many governments since November slowed the recovery of international demand by around two weeks in December, but did not disrupt the overall upward recovery trend.
International demand has reportedly been recovering at a rate of around four percentage points per month compared with 2019 figures, and demand for December was projected to reach around -56.5 per cent of 2019 figures for the period. Instead, volumes rose marginally to -58.4 per cent for December, compared with -60.5 per cent in November.
Ticket sales for future domestic and international travel has also deteriorated since November. Tickets sold for travel at any point in the future were at 45 per cent of 2019 levels in the first half of January – a deterioration compared with 50 per cent in December and 56 per cent in November. IATA says that this indicates that the January-February period will be weaker than would have been expected without the disruption of Omicron.
Travel demand has strengthened, and will gather pace as passenger confidence grows
According to Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General: “Overall, travel demand strengthened in 2021. That trend continued into December despite travel restrictions in the face of Omicron. That says a lot about the strength of passenger confidence and the desire to travel. The challenge for 2022 is to reinforce that confidence by normalising travel. While international travel remains far from normal in many parts of the world, there is momentum in the right direction. Last week, France and Switzerland announced significant easing of measures. And yesterday the UK removed all testing requirements for vaccinated travellers. We hope others will follow their important lead, particularly in Asia where several key markets remain in virtual isolation.”
“As Covid-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage, it is past time for governments to evolve their responses away from travel restrictions that repeatedly have been shown to be ineffective in preventing the spread of the disease, but which inflict enormous harm on lives and economies. A New Year’s resolution for governments should be to focus on building population immunity and stop placing travel barriers in the way of a return to normality,” Walsh added.