(Posted 25th January 2022)
Passenger Demand Recovery Continued in 2021 but Omicron Having Impact
Accelerate Easing of Travel Restrictions
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced full-year global passenger traffic results for 2021 showing that demand (revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) fell by 58.4% compared to the full year of 2019. This represented an improvement compared to 2020, when full year RPKs were down 65.8% versus 2019.
Because comparisons between 2021 and 2020 results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of COVID-19, unless otherwise noted all comparisons are to the respective 2019 period, which followed a normal demand pattern.
International passenger demand in 2021 was 75.5% below 2019 levels. Capacity, (measured in available seat kilometers or ASKs) declined 65.3% and load factor fell 24.0 percentage points to 58.0%.
Domestic demand in 2021 was down 28.2% compared to 2019. Capacity contracted by 19.2% and load factor dropped 9.3 percentage points to 74.3%.
Total traffic for the month of December 2021 was 45.1% below the same month in 2019, improved from the 47.0% contraction in November, as monthly demand continued to recover despite concerns over Omicron. Capacity was down 37.6% and load factor fell 9.8 percentage points to 72.3%.
Impact of Omicron Measures: Omicron travel restrictions slowed the recovery in international demand by about two weeks in December. International demand has been recovering at a pace of about four percentage points/month compared to 2019. Without Omicron, we would have expected international demand for the month of December to improve to around 56.5% below 2019 levels. Instead, volumes rose marginally to 58.4% below 2019 from -60.5% in November.
“Overall travel demand strengthened in 2021. That trend continued into December despite travel restrictions in the face of Omicron. That says a lot about the strength of passenger confidence and the desire to travel. The challenge for 2022 is to reinforce that confidence by normalizing travel. While international travel remains far from normal in many parts of the world, there is momentum in the right direction. Last week, France and Switzerland announced significant easing of measures. And yesterday the UK removed all testing requirements for vaccinated travelers. We hope others will follow their important lead, particularly in Asia where several key markets remain in virtual isolation,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
2021 Calendar year (% chg vs 2019)
World share in 2021 RPK ASK PLF (%-pt)2 PLF (level)3
Total Market 100.0% -58.4% -48.8% -15.4% 67.2%
Africa 1.9% -62.8% -55.1% -12.3% 59.5%
Asia Pacific 27.5% -66.9% -56.7% -19.2% 62.6%
Europe 24.9% -61.3% -51.9% -16.6% 68.6%
Latin America 6.5% -47.4% -43.9% -5.2% 77.3%
Middle East 6.5% -69.9% -55.5% -24.6% 51.5%
North America 32.6% -39.0% -29.9% -11.0% 73.8%
1% of global RPKs 2Change in load factor vs same period in 2019 3Load Factor Level
International Passenger Markets
Asia-Pacific airlines’ full-year international traffic plunged 93.2% in 2021 compared to 2019, which was the deepest decline for any region. It fell 87.5% in the month of December, a bit better than the 89.8% decline in November. Full year capacity was down 84.9% compared to 2019. Load factor fell 44.3 percentage points to 36.5%.
European carriers saw a 67.6% traffic decline in 2021 versus 2019. Capacity fell 57.4% and load factor decreased 20.6 percentage points to 65.0%. For the month of December, traffic slid 41.5% compared to December 2019, an improvement over the 43.5% year-to-year decline in November.
Middle Eastern airlines’ annual passenger volumes in 2021 were 71.6% below 2019. Annual capacity fell 57.7% and load factor dropped 25.1 percentage points to 51.1%. December’s traffic was down 51.2% compared to December 2019, a solid pick-up from a 54.3% drop in November.
North American airlines’ full year traffic fell 65.6% compared to 2019. Capacity dropped 52.0%, and load factor sank 23.8 percentage points to 60.2%. December demand was down 41.7% compared to the same month a year-ago, a pick-up over a 44.6% drop in November.
Latin American airlines had a 66.9% full year traffic decline compared to 2019. Capacity fell 62.2% and load factor dropped 10.2 percentage points to 72.6%, the highest among regions. Traffic fell 40.4% for the month of December compared to December 2019, significantly bettering the 47.3% decline in November.
African airlines’ international traffic fell 65.2% last year compared to 2019, which was the best performance among regions. Capacity dropped 56.7%, and load factor sank 14.1 percentage points to 57.3%. Demand for the month of December was 60.5% below the year-ago period, a deterioration from the 56.5% decline in November, owing to the impact of government travel restrictions in response to Omicron.
Domestic Passenger Markets
2021 Calendar year (% chg vs 2019)
World share in 2021 RPK ASK PLF (%-pt)2 PLF (level)3
Domestic 62.4% -28.2% -19.2% -9.3% 74.3%
Australia 0.7% -62.4% -50.4% -19.6% 61.2%
Brazil 1.9% -27.2% -25.1% -2.3% 80.4%
China P.R. 17.8% -24.4% -8.9% -14.4% 70.2%
India 2.2% -41.8% -28.8% -15.9% 71.4%
Japan 1.1% -57.9% -38.3% -23.4% 50.4%
Russian Fed. 4.5% 24.2% 19.4% 3.4% 86.5%
US 25.6% -23.8% -16.7% -7.3% 78.0%
1% of global RPKs Change in load factor vs same period in 2019 Load Factor Level
China’s domestic passenger traffic fell 24.4% in 2021 compared to 2019. It was down 39.6% for the month of December versus December 2019, which was an improvement compared to a 50.9% decline in November.
Russia’s domestic traffic rose 24.2% for the full year, and 23.2% for the month of December, an acceleration over the 17.5% rise in November. Russia was the only market to see growth in RPKs in 2021 compared to 2019.
The Bottom Line
“As COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage, it is past time for governments to evolve their responses away from travel restrictions that repeatedly have been shown to be ineffective in preventing the spread of the disease, but which inflict enormous harm on lives and economies. A New Year’s resolution for governments should be to focus on building population immunity and stop placing travel barriers in the way of a return to normality,” said Walsh.
View the Full Year/December 2021 Air Passenger Market Analysis (pdf)
View the Overview of air transport in 2021 and recent developments presentation.
Meanwhile has the International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged governments to accelerate relaxation of travel restrictions as COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage. IATA called 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 travelers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result.
Removing travel bans, and Accelerating the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travelers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.
“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travelers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of COVID-19. The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations. The billions spent testing travelers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General when speaking on the subject.
A recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health(i) demonstrated the extremely limited impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron. The study found that:
If the UK’s extra measures(ii)? with respect to Omicron had been in place from the beginning of November (prior to the identification of the variant), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with 3% fewer cases.
The absence of any testing measures for travelers would have seen the Omicron wave peak seven days earlier with an overall 8% increase in cases.
Now that Omicron is highly prevalent in the UK, if all travel testing requirements were removed there would be no impact on Omicron case numbers or hospitalizations in the UK.
“While the study is specific to the UK, it is clear that travel restrictions in any part of the world have had little impact on the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant. The UK, France and Switzerland have recognized this and are among the first to begin removing travel measures. More governments need to follow their lead. Accelerating the removal of travel restrictions will be a major step towards living with the virus,” continued Walsh.
With respect to travel bans, last week, the WHO Emergency Committee confirmed their recommendation to “Lift or ease international traffic bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced by States. The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time.”
What happens when COVID-19 is confirmed as endemic?
All indications point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition—one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity.
This aligns with the advice from public health experts to shift the policy focus from an individual’s health status towards policies focusing on population-wide protection. It is important that governments and the travel industry are well-prepared for the transition and ready to remove the burden of measures that disrupt travel.
“The current situation of travel restrictions is a mess. There is one problem—COVID-19. But there seem to be more unique solutions to managing travel and COVID-19 than there are countries to travel to. Indeed research from the Migration Policy Institute has counted more than 100,000 travel measures around the world that create complexity for passengers, airlines and governments to manage. We have two years of experience to guide us on a simplified and coordinated path to normal travel when COVID-19 is endemic. That normality must recognize that travelers, with very few exceptions, will present no greater risk than exists in the general population. And that’s why travelers should not be subject to any greater restrictions than are applied to the general community,” added Walsh.
Mutually recognized policies on vaccination will be critical as we approach the endemic phase. Barrier-free travel is a potent incentive for vaccination. The sustainability of this incentive must not be compromised by vaccine policies that complicate travel or divert vaccine resources from where they can do the most good. Issues to address include:
Accepted vaccines: There is no universal recognition for all vaccines on the WHO Emergency Use list. This raises a barrier to travel as people have little choice on the range of vaccines available in their country.
Validity: There is no alignment on the length of vaccine validity. This will become a barrier to travel as eligibility for boosters is controlled by national policies. Unduly short validity periods that effectively require air passengers to get regular booster jabs to travel internationally will consume resources that could support primary vaccination in the developing world and booster doses for the most vulnerable. It is reported that the WHO’s Chief Scientist called for booster doses to be used “to protect the most vulnerable, to protect those at highest risk of severe disease and dying. Those are […] elderly populations, immuno-compromised people with underlying conditions, but also healthcare workers.”
Distribution priorities: The calls of WHO and health experts for vaccine equity are not universally prioritized. Only half the states in Africa have been able to vaccinate more than 10% of their populations while many developed countries are reducing vaccination validity and considering second rounds of boosters. This creates a barrier to travel and strains testing resources in parts of the world where vaccine distribution is less advanced.
“Urgent consideration is needed for several critical concerns regarding vaccines. While Europe is aligning around a nine-month validity period for primary vaccinations, this is not universal. And booster shot validity has not been addressed. As the first quarter of the year is key to bookings for the peak-northern summer travel season, it is important to provide certainty to potential travelers as early as possible. Governments have declared intentions to support a travel recovery. Addressing questions on vaccination validity is a key element,” added Walsh.
Industry and Governments Finding Solutions Together
In October, the Ministerial Declaration of the ICAO High-level Conference on COVID-19 called for “one vision for aviation recovery.” IATA followed-up by publishing From Restart to Recovery in November. It is a blueprint for reconnecting the world following key principles of simplicity, predictability and practicality.
“The over-reaction of many governments to Omicron proved the blueprint’s key point—the need for simple, predictable and practical means of living with the virus that don’t constantly default to de-connecting the world. We have seen that targeting disproportionate measures at travelers has economic and social costs but very limited public health benefits. We must aim at a future where international travel faces no greater restriction than visiting a shop, attending a public gathering or riding the bus,” continued Walsh.
IATA Travel Pass
The successful rollout of the IATA Travel Pass continues with a growing number of airlines already using it in daily operations to support the validation of health credentials for travel.
“Whatever the rules are for vaccination requirements, the industry will be able to manage them with digital solutions, the leader of which is the IATA Travel Pass. It’s a matured solution being implemented across a growing number of global networks,” concluded Walsh.