International passenger traffic suffered a dramatic 60 percent drop over 2020, bringing air travel totals back to 2003 levels, said the Economic Impact Analysis of COVID-19 released by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) last week.
According to the analysis, the seating capacity of airlines fell by 50 percent last year, passenger totals dropped by 60 percent with just 1.8 billion passengers taking to the air during the first year of the pandemic, compared to 4.5 billion in 2019.
These ICAO numbers also pointed to airline financial losses of 370 billion dollars resulting from the COVID-19 impacts, with airports and air navigation services providers (ANSPs) losing a further 115 billion and 13 billion, respectively.
According to ICAO in the report, the pandemic plunge in air travel demand began in January of 2020 but was limited to only a few countries. As the virus continued its global spread, however, air transport activities came to a virtual standstill by the end of March.
With the wide-scale lockdown measures, border closures, and travel restrictions being set out around the world, by April the overall number of passengers had fallen 92 percent from 2019 levels, an average of the 98 percent drop-off seen in international traffic and 87 percent fall in domestic air travel.
Subsequent to the April low point being reached, passenger traffic saw a moderate rebound during the summer travel period.
That upward trend was short-lived, however, stalling and then taking a turn for the worse in September when the second wave of infection in many regions prompted the reintroduction of restrictive measures.
Sectoral recovery became more vulnerable and volatile again during the last four months of 2020, indicating an overall double-dip recession for the year.
Disparity between domestic and international recoveries
ICAO also reported that there has been a persistent disparity between domestic and international air travel impacts resulting from the more stringent international measures in force.
It said that domestic travel demonstrated stronger resilience and dominated traffic recovery scenarios, particularly in China and the Russian Federation where domestic passenger numbers have already returned to the pre-pandemic levels.
Overall there was a 50 percent drop in domestic passenger traffic globally, while international traffic fell by 74 percent or 1.4 billion fewer passengers.
As of late May 2020, the ICAO Asia/Pacific and North American regions led the global recovery in passenger totals, largely due to their significant domestic markets. Europe saw a temporary rebound but trended downward dramatically from September. Latin American and Caribbean traffic saw improvements in the fourth quarter, while recoveries in Africa and the Middle East proceeded less robustly.
Reviewing world passenger traffic evolution 1945 – 2020, ICAO recorded 60 percent decline in world total passengers in 2020.
Financial distress and grim outlook ahead, ICAO has this to say:
Paralyzed revenue streams resulting from the plunge in air traffic have led to severe liquidity strains across the aviation value chain, placing the industry’s financial viability in question and threatening millions of jobs around the world.
Cascading impacts have also been severe across tourism markets globally, given that over 50 percent of international tourists formerly used air travel to reach their destinations.
The global 370 billion dollar drop in gross airline passenger operating revenues represented losses of 120 billion in the Asia/Pacific, 100 billion in Europe, and 88 billion in North America, followed by 26 billion, 22 billion and 14 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa, respectively.
ICAO indicated that the near-term outlook is for prolonged depressed demand, with downside risks to global air travel recovery predominating in the first quarter of 2021, and likely to be subject to further deterioration.
It expects any improvement in the global picture only by the second quarter of 2021, though this will still be subject to the effectiveness of pandemic management and vaccination rolls out.
In the most optimistic scenario, by June of 2021 passenger numbers will be expected to recover to 71 percent of their 2019 levels (53 percent for international and 84 percent for domestic). A more pessimistic scenario foresees only a 49 percent recovery (26 percent for international and 66 percent for domestic).
However, ICAO promised to continue to provide recommendations and support for the aviation sector to weather through the crisis.
2020 passenger traffic and revenues (International) by regions
Africa: Capacity: ‐64% Passenger: ‐58 million Revenue (USD): ‐12 billion
Middle East: Capacity: ‐64% Passenger: ‐114 million Revenue (USD): ‐21 billion
Europe: Capacity: ‐65% Passenger: ‐652 million Revenue (USD): ‐92 billion
Asia and Pacific: Capacity: ‐74% Passenger: ‐421 million Revenue (USD): ‐89 billion
Latin America and Caribbean: Capacity: ‐59% Passenger: ‐83 million Revenue (USD): ‐17 billion
North America: Capacity: ‐63% Passenger: ‐116 million Revenue (USD): ‐32 billion
2020 passenger traffic and revenues (Domestic) by regions
Africa: Capacity: ‐55% Passenger: ‐27 million Revenue (USD): ‐2 billion
Asia and Pacific: Capacity: ‐35% Passenger: ‐565 million Revenue (USD): ‐40 billion
Middle East: Capacity: ‐46% Passenger: ‐23 million Revenue (USD): ‐2 billion
Europe: Capacity: ‐41% Passenger: ‐144 million Revenue (USD): ‐12 billion
Latin America and Caribbean: Capacity: ‐53% Passenger: ‐130 million Revenue (USD): ‐11 billion
North America: Capacity: ‐41% Passenger: ‐518 million Revenue (USD): ‐61 billion
Global impact of COVID-19 on aviation, tourism, trade and economy in 2020
Air passenger traffic: An overall reduction of air passengers (both international and domestic) ranging from 60% in 2020 compared to 2019 (by ICAO)
Airports: An estimated loss of approximately 64.2% of passenger traffic and 65% or over USD 111.8 billion airport revenues in 2020 compared to business as usual (by ACI)
Airlines: A 66.3% decline of revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs, both international and domestic) in 2020 compared to 2019 (by IATA)
Tourism: A decline in international tourism receipts of between USD 910 to 1,170 billion in 2020, compared to the USD 1.5 trillion generated in 2019, with 100% of worldwide destinations having travel restrictions (by UNWTO)
Trade: A fall of global merchandise trade volume by 9.2% in 2020 compared to 2019 (by WTO)
Global economy: A projected -4.3% to -4.4% contraction in world GDP in 2020, far worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis (by IMF and World Bank)