Aviation’s axis has been tilting East since the dawn of commercial air travel, but in 2020 it temporarily shifted forward 20 years in the space of just 12 months

13 April, 2021

Things change over time: we all get older, some wiser, and we hopefully learn from our mistakes. It was once believed that the Earth was flat. We all (well, the vast majority) now know that it's round, but did you know that is not a perfect sphere? It never has been! The planet actually bulges around the equator by an extra 0.3% as a result of the fact that it rotates about its axis.

If you want the proof then here it is in numbers! The Earth's diameter from North to South Pole is 7,900 miles (12,714 kilometres), while through the equator it is 7,926 miles (12,756 kilometres). While this variation is too tiny to be seen in pictures of Earth from space it could change in time with research from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggesting that melting glaciers are causing Earth's waistline to spread.

Just as the Earth is becoming rotund its rotation is gradually slowing and the length of Earth's day is increasing. According to NASA evidence, when Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, its day would have been roughly six hours long. By 620 million years ago, this had increased to 21.9 hours. Today, the average day – as we all know – is 24 hours long, but it is increasing by about 1.7 milliseconds every century.

While Earth’s own dynamics are changing, so too is the air transport sector that has made it a smaller place – literally, rather than physically, of course. The commercial airline business has exploded over the past 100 years. From its dawn at the start of 1914 when the first scheduled passenger airline service began in the US between St Petersburg and Tampa in Florida, it has generally followed an upward trajectory.

The initial St Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was a short-lived endeavour that only latest four months – perhaps a sign – but it ultimately paved the way for today's massive industry. The 21-mile (34-kilometre) flight across the bay took 23 minutes. Just over a century later non-stop flights can now reach over 9,500 miles (15,350 kilometre), an over 18 hour journey.

As the industry has developed, the axis of the global aviation industry has been gradually moving east. The heart of aviation has for many decades focussed on the busy transatlantic flows, but we’ve seen a massive shift towards the Middle East of the past decades with the emergence of the big Gulf hub carriers, while the rise of India and the Asia-Pacific region will see the latter surpass both North America and Europe in terms of passenger traffic in the future.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of the world's airlines, predicted long before COVID hit the world that China would displace the USA as the largest aviation market in the world, India would overtake the UK’s third position by 2024, and Indonesia would rise up the rankings to become the world’s fourth largest aviation market by 2030.

In the space of just one year much of that had already happened. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic artificially influenced air travel data for 2020 and it seems has fast-forwarded the industry into a new reality. This was highlighted by the latest Chart of the Week offering from IATA Economics that indicated that the world’s global air transport axis has made a significant shift, one that IATA says has moved it close to the centre of gravity it had projected for 2039, based on its latest air passenger forecast.

The jump forward over 20 years will only be temporary. “This is mostly a symbolic coincidence,” acknowledges IATA, but it does highlight how the large emerging markets in Asia will become more and more prominent. This is already being evidenced by the rapid recovery and subsequent importance of the Chinese domestic air transport market. In 2019, China domestic represented 9.8% of total global RPKs. In 2020, this became 19.9%, reports IATA.

China though will lose its new status of the world’s largest aviation market in 2022, as the US regains its former position, but it will permanently take hold the crown again from around 2025.

The 2020 shift in the aviation centre of gravity “is likely to be partly reverted once aviation restart outside of China, and it will take many years to come back to such an eastern central point,” notes IATA. When that occurs, still likely to be around 2039, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand will all belong to the ten largest overall aviation markets globally as mature markets in Europe and North America slow down and become less central to global air transport.

For now, the centre for air transport will head back west in 2021, but its location in 2020 to the south of Iran, based on the weighting of the coordinates of all airports worldwide by the seats they each flew in the year, gives us a glimpse into the future. Right now, it may be temporary, but it is a clear sign of the normal that we will see 20 years into the future, albeit traffic levels will be much higher than those seen in 2019, the peak year for air travel.