‘Momentum toward normalising traffic growing’; restrictions removal gives confidence to buy tickets

22 February, 2022

Latest information from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade body that represents many of the world’s largest airlines has shown growing momentum in the recovery of air travel as restrictions are lifted. Its own ticket sales data, based on its DDS business intelligence service displays a sharp 11-percentage point increase for international tickets sold in recent weeks (in proportion to 2019 sales).  

In the period around 08-Feb-2022 (a seven day moving average) the IATA data shows the number of tickets sold stood at 49% of the same period in 2019, while in a previous period around 25-Jan-2022 (a seven day moving average) the number of tickets sold stood at 38% of the same period in 2019. The 11-percentage point improvement between the periods is the fastest such increase for any two-week period since the crisis began.

Ticket sales driven by progressive alleviation of COVID-19 measures

The jump in ticket sales comes as more governments announce a relaxation of COVID-19 border restrictions. An IATA survey of travel restrictions for the world’s top 50 air travel markets (comprising 92% of global demand in 2019 as measured by revenue passenger kilometres), based on data contained in its TIMATIC service, reveals a growing access available to vaccinated travellers.

In total, 18 markets (comprising about 20% of 2019 demand) are open to vaccinated travellers without quarantine or pre-departure testing requirements. A further 10 markets are open to vaccinated travellers without quarantine requirements, covering approximately 50% of 2019 demand.

More wider, 37 markets (comprising about 60% of 2019 demand) are open to vaccinated travellers under varying conditions (18 having no restrictions, others requiring testing or quarantine or both). These numbers reflect a recent spate of relaxations announced around the world, including in Australia, France, the Philippines, the UK, Switzerland, and Sweden among them.

Travellers now have potential to travel much more extensively…

“Momentum toward normalising traffic is growing,” acknowledges Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general. “Vaccinated travellers have the potential to travel much more extensively with fewer hassles than even a few weeks ago,” he says.

This increased certainty is providing growing numbers of travellers the confidence to now buy tickets, where previously changing restrictions and uncertainty over the progression of the pandemic had left a more pessimistic outlook.

… but there remain need to further accelerate the removal of travel restrictions

While, recent progress is impressive, the world remains far from 2019 levels of connectivity there remains a need to further accelerate the removal of travel restrictions. While recent progress is impressive, the world remains far from 2019 levels of connectivity. According to IATA’s survey, 13 of the top 50 travel markets still do not provide easy access to all vaccinated travellers, a list that includes major economies like China, Japan, Russia, Indonesia, and Italy.

IATA continues to call for removing all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine; enabling quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travellers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result; removing travel bans; and accelerating the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travellers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.

Putting a stop to the singling out of the traveling population for special measures

“Travel restrictions have had a severe impact on people and on economies. They have not, however, stopped the spread of the virus. And it is time for their removal as we learn to live and travel in a world that will have risks of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future,” says Mr Walsh.

“This means putting a stop to the singling out of the traveling population for special measures. In nearly all cases, travellers don’t bring any more risk to a market than is already there. Many governments have recognised this already and removed restrictions. Many more need to follow,” he adds.

Domestic ticket sales lend support to cautious optimism

IATA reports forward domestic bookings in the US, China and India rebounded in early Feb-2022, after weakness from Nov-2021 due to the Omicron COVID-19 variant, and disruptions to demand, capacity and labour forces. IATA noted that as travellers tend to book closer to the travel date amid pandemic uncertainty, the increase in bookings "bodes well for actual traffic volumes” in Feb-2022 and Mar-2022.

As the graph illustrates, the United States of America (USA) has been the strongest performer with ticket sales for all future travel reaching 98% of 2019 levels in early Feb-2022. In China, bookings were suppressed for several months but rose to 84% of 2019 levels in Feb-2022, in part thanks to increased travel demand around Chinese New Year celebrations. Russia's domestic market has been an outlier, with ticket sales made in Feb-2022 significantly weaker than in the Nov-2021 to Jan-2022 period. This can be partly explained by the different timing of the Omicron wave as the pandemic continues to escalate in Russia.

IATA says the recent rise in domestic bookings in three of the four key domestic markets gives a reason for “cautious optimism about the near-term recovery” in global domestic traffic. However, the evidence from Russia shows that the traffic improvement “will not be broad-based across all markets”.