|Reduced Losses But Continued Pain in 2021
-Immediate Priorities are Restart Plans, Employment Support, and Costs-
|The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects net airline industry losses of $47.7 billion in 2021 (net profit margin of -10.4%). This is an improvement on the estimated net industry loss of $126.4 billion in 2020 (net profit margin of -33.9%).
“This crisis is longer and deeper than anyone could have expected. Losses will be reduced from 2020, but the pain of the crisis increases. There is optimism in domestic markets where aviation’s hallmark resilience is demonstrated by rebounds in markets without internal travel restrictions. Government imposed travel restrictions, however, continue to dampen the strong underlying demand for international travel. Despite an estimated 2.4 billion people travelling by air in 2021, airlines will burn through a further $81 billion of cash,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
The outlook points to the start of industry recovery in the latter part of 2021. In the face of the ongoing crisis, IATA calls for:
Plans for a restart in preparation for a recovery: IATA continues to urge governments to have plans in place so that no time is lost in restarting the sector when the epidemiological situation allows for a re-opening of borders.
“Most governments have not yet provided clear indications of the benchmarks that they will use to safely give people back their travel freedom, In the meantime, a significant portion of the $3.5 trillion in GDP and 88 million jobs supported by aviation are at risk. Effectively restarting aviation will energize the travel and tourism sectors and the wider economy. With the virus becoming endemic, learning to safely live, work and travel with it is critical. That means governments must turn their focus to risk management to protect livelihoods as well as lives,” said Walsh.
Employment Support: Industry losses of this scale imply a cash burn of $81 billion in 2021 on top of $149 billion in 2020. Government financial relief measures and capital markets have been filling this hole in airline balance sheets, preventing widespread bankruptcies. The industry will recover but more government relief measures, particularly in the form of employment support programmes, will be needed this year.
“Owing to government relief measures, cost-cutting, and success in accessing capital markets, some airlines appear able to ride out the storm. Others are less well-cushioned and may need to raise more cash from banks or capital markets. This will add to the industry’s debt burden, which has ballooned by $220 billion to $651 billion. There is a definite role for governments in providing relief measures that ensure critical employees and skills are retained to successfully restart and rebuild the industry,” continued Walsh.
Cost containment/reduction: The whole industry will come out of the crisis financially weakened. Cost containment and reductions, wherever possible, will be key to restoring financial health.
“Containing and reducing costs will be top of mind for airlines. Governments and partners must have the same mentality. And that must be reflected in items big and small. There can be no tolerance for monopoly infrastructure suppliers gouging their customers to recoup losses through higher charges. Equally, we demand an end to the extortionate costs for COVID-19 testing with governments taking their cut on top of that with taxes. Everyone must be aligned in understanding that increased travel costs will mean a slower economic recovery. Cost reduction efforts on all sides are needed,” added Walsh.
Industry Outlook Highlights:
Demand: Travel restrictions, including quarantines, have killed demand. IATA estimates that travel (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) will recover to 43% of 2019 levels over the year. While that is a 26% improvement on 2020, it is far from a recovery. Domestic markets will improve faster than international travel. Overall passenger numbers are expected to reach 2.4 billion in 2021. That is an improvement on the nearly 1.8 billion who travelled in 2020, but well below the 2019 peak of 4.5 billion.
Cargo: Cargo has outperformed the passenger business throughout the crisis. That trend is expected to continue throughout 2021. Demand for cargo is expected to grow by 13.1% over 2020. This puts the cargo business in positive territory compared to pre-crisis levels (2020 saw a full-year decline of 9.1% compared to 2019). Total cargo volumes are expected to reach 63.1 million tonnes in 2021. That’s nearly at the pre-crisis peak of 63.5 million tonnes which occurred in 2018.
Revenues: Industry revenues are expected to total $458 billion. That’s just 55% of the $838 billion generated in 2019 but represents 23% growth on the $372 billion generated in 2020.
Costs: Airlines have not been able to cut costs as fast as revenues have fallen. Recently we have seen worrying cost trends in fuel and infrastructure:
Capacity: Capacity is likely to return at a slower pace than demand. That reflects the pressure on airlines from debt and fuel prices to operate only cashflow-positive services. Taking cargo and passenger traffic into account, the overall weighted load factor is forecast to rise a little to 60.3% in 2021. This is considerably below the 66% we estimate to be breakeven for profitability in 2021 – even though cash costs of operations are being covered.
Significant differentiation is emerging between regions with large domestic markets and those relying primarily on international traffic. Losses are highest in Europe (-$22.2 billion) with only 11% of its passenger traffic (RPK) being domestic. Proportionately, losses are much smaller in North America (-$5.0 billion) and Asia-Pacific (-$10.5 billion) where domestic markets are larger (66% and 45% respectively, pre-crisis).
View the COVID-19 Airline industry financial outlook update presentation