Annual air passenger up on 2020, but remain only half pre-pandemic traffic levels

19 January, 2022

Global passenger traffic recovered modestly in 2021, with the latest International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) economic impact analysis of COVID-19 on civil aviation revealing that the number of passengers worldwide in the calendar year was 2.3 billion. This was just over half (-49%) the pre-pandemic levels recorded in 2019, but up from the -60% percent drop seen in 2020.  

The ICAO data shows that global seat capacity offered by airlines improved by 20% during the same period, exceeding the growth in passenger demand. The overall passenger load factor in 2021 stood at 68%, compared to 82% in 2019 with airlines worldwide incurring estimated losses of USD324 billion following USD372 billion in 2020, according to the agency of the United Nations.

WHO and ICAO guidance ‘helping to eliminate travel restrictions disproportionate to public health risks’

Continuing efforts by States to implement WHO and ICAO recommendations, including those issued by the ICAO Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART), and adopted in the Ministerial Declaration at ICAO’s High-level Conference on COVID-19, are “helping to eliminate travel restrictions disproportionate to public health risks,” says ICAO.

This will ultimately lessen the pandemic’s impacts on global mobility so that air travel, trade and tourism can recover more quickly and bring prosperity back to many hard hit markets and regions worldwide.

2021 was year of sporadic recoveries

The ICAO records show the first quarter of 2021 witnessed a decrease in the rate of global air traffic recovery due to the sharp spike at that time in COVID-19 infections. The situation stabilised slightly in the second and third quarters, mainly due to rising vaccination rates, and with an accompanying relaxation in travel restrictions in various parts of the world during the peak travel season. However this upward trend stalled quickly in the fourth quarter, with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Pandemic continues to ‘weigh disproportionately’ on domestic and international travel

ICAO says the impact of the pandemic continues to “weigh disproportionately” on domestic and international travel, with the former – as has been well recorded – recovering at a faster pace. ICAO’s own records show domestic passenger traffic has recovered to 68% pre-pandemic levels, while international traffic remains at just 28%.

Recovery characterised by significant regional variation

The global aviation recovery has also been characterised by significant regional variation, with ICAO data highlighting the North and Latin America and Caribbean regions with the highest recovery rates, Europe picking up noticeably during the summer travel season, and Africa and the Middle East recovering moderately, until Africa plunged again due to Omicron restrictions. The Asia Pacific region was the weakest performing as a result of “slowed domestic and stagnant international traffic levels,” says ICAO.

Optimism rises, but outlook still uncertain

Both positive signs and downside risks confront analysts trying to gauge how the aviation recovery will play out over the remainder of 2022, says ICAO and it currently projects that 2022 passenger totals will still be down by between a quarter and a third, around 26% to 31% less than pre-pandemic levels, with seat capacity down between a fifth and a quarter, around 20% to 23% of 2019 levels.

In an optimistic scenario though, ICAO notes that passenger traffic could actually recover to 86% of its 2019 levels by Dec-2022, based on 73% international traffic and 95% domestic recovery. More pessimistic scenarios point to a 75% recovery based on 58% international and 86% domestic recoveries.

Around USD200 billion is losses still expected for airlines in 2022

This projected continued decline in traffic could translate into estimated further losses of USD186–USD217 billion in gross airline passenger operating revenues in 2022 compared to 2019.

ICAO’s longer-term forecasts indicate that current downturns will also affect traffic patterns over the longer-term, with the 2018-2050 compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of global revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) now projected at 3.6%, down from the 4.2% forecast pre-COVID.