IATA: Air travel plummet continues to worsen

Published April 8, 2021, 10:06 AM

by Emmie V. Abadilla

The extraordinary impact of COVID-19 continued to pull down demand for air travel (measured in revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs), which plummeted 74.7 percent in February 2021.

This was worse than the 72.2 percent decline recorded in January 2021 versus two years ago, according to the latest data of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released last night (April 7).

International passenger demand in February plunged 88.7 percent below February 2019, a further drop from the 85.7 percent year-to-year decline recorded in January and the worst growth outcome since July 2020.

Performance in all regions worsened compared to January 2021.

“February showed no indication of a recovery in demand for international air travel,” summed up IATA’s Director General Willie Walsh.

“In fact, most indicators went in the wrong direction as travel restrictions tightened in the face of continuing concerns over new coronavirus variants,” he pointed out.

An important exception was the Australian domestic market, Walsh noted.

Relaxing restrictions on domestic flying resulted in significantly more travel.

“This tells us that people have not lost their desire travel. They will fly, provided they can do so without facing quarantine measures,” he stressed.

Worldwide, total domestic demand went down 51.0 percent versus pre-crisis (February 2019) levels.

In January it was down 47.8 percent on the 2019 period.

This was due to weakness in China travel, driven by government requests that citizens stay at home during the Lunar New Year travel period.

Asia-Pacific airlines’ February traffic was down 95.2 percent compared to February 2019, little changed from the 94.8 percent decline registered for January 2021 compared to January 2019.

The region continued to suffer from the steepest traffic declines for an eighth consecutive month.

Capacity was down 87.5 percent and the load factor sank 50.0 percentage points to 31.1 percent, the lowest among regions.

Middle Eastern airlines saw demand fall 83.1 percent in February compared to February 2019, worsened from an 82.1 percent demand drop in January, versus the same month in 2019.

Capacity fell 68.6 percent, and load factor declined 33.4 percentage points to 39.0 percent.

Overall, “There are ways to efficiently manage the risks of COVID-19 without relying on demand-killing quarantine measures or expensive and time-consuming PCR testing,” Walsh underscored.

Developing global standards for digital COVID-19 test or vaccination certificates can efficiently restart travel, he argued.

Another option is for governments to accept certificates digitally.

“Our experiences to date already demonstrate that paper-based systems are not a sustainable option,” he warned.

“They are vulnerable to fraud. And, even with the limited amount of flying today, the check-in process needs pre-COVID-19 staffing levels just to handle the paperwork.”

Paper processes will not be sustainable when travel ramps up, he reiterated.

For this reason, the association developed the IATA Travel Pass app to manage health credentials digitally.

Its first full implementation trial is focused on Singapore, where the government has already announced it will accept health certificates through the app.

“This will be an essential consideration for all governments when they are ready to relink their economies with the world through air travel,” Walsh concluded.