The Asia-Pacific though is expected to continue to lag the recovery with the region’s largest market, China, not showing any signs of relaxing its severe border measures in the near future.
There is still a long way to go to reach a normal state of affairs, but the forecast for the evolution in passenger numbers “gives good reason to be optimistic,” says Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general. “The trajectory for the recovery in passenger numbers from COVID-19 was not changed by the Omicron variant. People want to travel. And when travel restrictions are lifted, they return to the skies.”
Domestic travel set for 2023 recovery; international recovery will follow in 2025
The new Feb-2022 update to the long-term forecast notes that in 2021, overall traveller numbers were 47% of 2019 levels with domestic traveller numbers 61% and international traveller numbers 27% of 2019 levels.
Overall traveller numbers are expected to improve to 83% in 2022, 94% in 2023, 103% in 2024 and 111% in 2025. Meanwhile, international traveller numbers are expected to improve to 69% in 2022, 82% in 2023, 92% in 2024 and 101% in 2025 and domestic traveller numbers are expected to improve to 93% in 2022, 103% in 2023, 111% in 2024 and 118% in 2025.
The outlook for the evolution of domestic traveller numbers is actually slightly more pessimistic than in IATA’s Nov-2021 forecast. While the US and Russian domestic markets have recovered, the same is currently not true for the other major domestic markets of China, Canada, Japan and Australia.
Government restrictions hamper progress but are being progressively dropped
The biggest and most immediate drivers of passenger numbers, acknowledges IATA, are the restrictions that governments place on travel. “Fortunately, more governments have understood that travel restrictions have little to no long-term impact on the spread of a virus,” says Mr Walsh.
“The economic and social hardship caused for very limited benefit is simply no longer acceptable in a growing number of markets,” he adds. This change of stance and progressive removal of restrictions is giving “a much-needed boost to the prospects for travel,” according to the IATA boss.
IATA pushes for further relaxation in travel restrictions
IATA has reiterated its call for more governments to take action. It is calling for the removal of all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine; pre-departure antigen testing to enable quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travellers; removing all 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.
Not all markets or market sectors are recovering at the same pace
The latest IATA data highlights just how wide the approaches to managing this ongoing global health crisis differ and the impact this is having on the recovery process. “In general, we are moving in the right direction, but there are some concerns,” says Mr Walsh.
Asia Pacific ‘the laggard of the recovery’
He describes Asia-Pacific as “the laggard of the recovery”. While Australia and New Zealand have announced measures to reconnect with the world, China shows no signs of relaxing its zero-COVID strategy. “The resulting localised lock-downs in its domestic market are depressing global passenger numbers even as other major markets like the US are largely back to normal,” explains Mr Walsh.
The slower removal of international travel restrictions, and the likelihood of renewed domestic restrictions during COVID outbreaks, mean that traffic to/from/within Asia Pacific will only reach 68% of 2019 levels in 2022, predicts IATA. This is the weakest outcome of the main regions and it is projected that 2019 levels will not be reached until 2025 (109% of 2019 levels) due to a slow recovery on international traffic in the region.
Short-haul travel to boost Europe and North America passenger numbers
In the next few years, the intra-Europe market is expected to benefit from passenger preferences for short-haul travel as confidence rebuilds. This will be facilitated by increasingly harmonised and restriction-free movement within the EU, says IATA. Total passenger numbers to/from/within Europe are expected to reach 86% of 2019 values in 2022, before making a full recovery in 2024 (105%), according to the trade body.
After what has proven to be a resilient 2021, traffic to/from/within North America will continue to perform strongly in 2022, projects IATA, as the US domestic market returns to pre-crisis trends, and with ongoing improvements in international travel. In 2022, passenger numbers will reach 94% of 2019 levels, and full recovery is expected in 2023 (102%), ahead of other regions, it predicts.
Weak prospects for Africa and long-haul focus impedes Middle East
Africa’s passenger traffic prospects are somewhat weaker in the near-term, says IATA, due to slow progress in vaccinating the population, and the impact of the crisis on developing economies. Passenger numbers to/from/within Africa will recover more gradually than in other regions, reaching 76% of 2019 levels in 2022, surpassing pre-crisis levels only in 2025 (101%).
With limited short-haul markets, the Middle East focus on long-haul connectivity through its hubs is expected to result in slower recovery, according to IATA. Passenger numbers to/from/within the Middle East are expected to reach 81% of 2019 levels in 2022, 98% in 2024 and 105% in 2025.
Latin America set for a strong 2022 boosted by ‘dynamic passenger flows’
Traffic to/from/within Latin America has been relatively resilient during the pandemic and is forecast to see a strong 2022, according to IATA, with limited travel restrictions and dynamic passenger flows within the region and to/from North America. 2019 passenger numbers are forecast to be surpassed in 2023 for Central America (102%), followed by South America in 2024 (103%) and the Caribbean in 2025 (101%).
Russia-Ukraine Conflict unlikely to impact the long-term growth of air transport
The latest IATA forecast does not calculate the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but in general, air transport is resilient against shocks and this conflict is “unlikely to impact the long-term growth of air transport,” according to the trade body. However, it acknowledges it is too early to estimate what the near-term consequences will be for aviation, but that it is clear that there are downside risks, in particular in markets with exposure to the conflict.
Sensitivity factors will include the geographic extent, severity, and time-period for sanctions and/or airspace closures. These impacts would be naturally felt most severely in Russia, Ukraine and neighbouring areas. According to IATA, pre-COVID-19, Russia, was the 11th largest market for air transport services in terms of passenger numbers, including its large domestic market, while Ukraine was ranked 48th.
“The impact on airline costs as a result of fluctuations in energy prices or rerouting to avoid Russian airspace could have broader implications. Consumer confidence and economic activity are likely to be impacted even outside of Eastern Europe,” warns IATA.