IATA labels 2020 as the worst year in history for air travel demand

The organisation says that if more travel restrictions are introduced, then travel demand may struggle to improve

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has revealed that passenger traffic demand for 2020 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) fell by 65.9% compared with 2019 – the most dramatic traffic decline in aviation history.

The association also says that forward bookings have also been falling since December.

International passenger demand last year dropped 75.6% below 2019 levels, whereas domestic demand was down 48.8% compared with the previous year.

Shanghai Airport
Photo Wiki Commons - Ptrump16

Total traffic measured in December 2020 was 69.7% below the same time the year before. There was barely any improvement from November’s figures which showed a 70.4% decline.

Bookings made in January for future air travel plummeted by 70% compared with the previous year, potentially impacting the rate at which the industry will recover.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, reiterates how badly the industry was hit in 2020: “Last year was a catastrophe. There is no other way to describe it. What recovery there was over the Northern hemisphere summer season stalled in autumn and the situation turned dramatically worse over the year-end holiday season, as more severe travel restrictions were imposed in the face of new outbreaks and new strains of COVID-19.”

IATA currently predicts that 2021 will see a 50.4% improvement compared with last year. However, they have also stated that if more travel restrictions are to be implemented then demand improvement could be limited to around 13% of 2020 figures – or 38% of 2019 levels.

Regarding international passenger markets, Asia-Pacific airlines’ full-year traffic report highlighted an 80.3% decline in 2020 compared with the previous year, making it the most severe deterioration for any region. Due to the enforcement of stricter lockdown rules, traffic fell by 94.7% in December.

European airlines experienced a 73.7% traffic decline last year compared with 2019, with an 82.3% plummet in December. The experience was very similar across other regions including Middle Eastern airlines (72.9%), North American airlines (75.4%), Latin American airlines (71.8%) and African airlines (69.8%).

China’s domestic passenger traffic fell by 30.8% compared with figures from 2019 and was down by 7.6% in December. Comparatively, Russia’s domestic traffic only fell by 23.5% for the entirety of last year. The country did experience a decline of 12% in December, however this was a drastic improvement from November’s 23% decrease.

“Optimism that the arrival and initial distribution of vaccines would lead to a prompt and orderly restoration in global air travel have been dashed in the face of new outbreaks and new mutations of the disease,” explained de Juniac. “We urge governments to work with industry to develop the standards for vaccination, testing, and validation that will enable governments to have confidence that borders can reopen, and international air travel can resume once the virus threat has been neutralized. In the meantime, the airline industry will require continued financial support from governments in order to remain viable.”