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Global Airline Traffic Still Just 75 Percent of Pre-Covid Levels

Jay Shabat
January 9th, 2023 at 1:30 PM EST

Heathrow Airport International Arrivals

Worldwide passenger traffic in November reached 75 percent of its November 2019 level, according to new data from IATA, the airline industry’s international trade association. That’s traffic measured by revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs), which account for both passenger volumes and distance flown. Domestic traffic has recovered slightly faster than international, though the figures vary greatly by region.

China still loomed large over the figures this past fall. The country’s borders are just now fully reopening to international flights, and domestic RPKs in November were just 30 percent of their total four years earlier. IATA is now actively urging governments to refrain from Covid testing requirements for inbound Chinese travelers, citing guidance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, among other experts. According to IATA, the prevailing view among epidemiologists is that “the reintroduction of testing for travelers from China can do little to contain a virus that is already present around the world.” Director General Willie Walsh added that governments were playing “science politics.” Walsh, who formerly was chief of International Airlines Group (IAG), was equally critical of China’s government for its own pre-departure testing requirements for inbound travelers.   

Airlines based in the broader Asia-Pacific region, including China, produced barely half the RPKs they did in November 2019. The declines across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa were less severe, down in the range of 15 to 17 percent. Latin American airline traffic was down just eight percent from four years ago. North America was down a mere 3 percent.

The U.S. domestic market, in fact, is all but back to where it was before Covid; it was down just 1 percent in November. IATA provided detailed statistics for capacity as well, which worldwide is down in virtual lockstep with traffic. The Chinese domestic market is a notable exception, featuring traffic declines that sharply outpace capacity declines. This entails much emptier flights within China today, versus four years ago. Indeed, IATA’s data show a 19-point decline in Chinese domestic load factors.

While full traffic recovery from the Covid crisis isn’t yet complete, 2022 nevertheless represented a major step in that direction. Comparing November 2022 to November 2021, global RPKs were up 41 percent, despite the Chinese domestic market being down 39 percent. China is the world’s only major country whose airline market was less busy in 2022 than it was in 2021, not just during November but throughout the whole year. IATA will publish final traffic and capacity figures for 2022 with its December update next month.

In a separate release, IATA said global air cargo traffic “softened” in November, falling 14 percent versus the same month one year earlier. Cargo capacity was down just two percent. As for comparisons with 2019, November’s cargo traffic was down ten percent while capacity was down nine percent. Through much of the pandemic, cargo was a bright spot for otherwise struggling airlines, thanks to both surging demand (as goods spending increased) and a sharp reduction in capacity (as airlines grounded large portions of their fleets). The situation is now reversing as the world economy cools and carriers reinstate grounded planes, many of which carry cargo in their bellies.

The fact that airlines have only recovered three-quarters of their pre-pandemic passenger traffic has a lot to do with China not relaxing its domestic and international travel restrictions until recently. Also a factor though, are supply-side constraints that have prevented many airlines from adding capacity. These include delays in aircraft production and labor shortages.

According to Air Lease Corp., citing JPMorgan, the aviation industry lost 2.3m jobs globally during the pandemic. Also dampening the speed of the recovery: high fuel prices, which resulted in higher costs for both airlines and their passengers.

Jay Shabat
January 9th, 2023 at 1:30 PM EST

Tags: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Middle East, North America

Photo credit: Heathrow Airport International Arrivals Heathrow Airport

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