In its latest global passenger forecast, IATA reports that the recovery in traffic has been slower than had been expected.
The airline industry association’s latest base case scenario reveals that:
- Global passenger traffic (revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024, a year later than previously projected.
- The recovery in short haul travel is still expected to happen faster than for long haul travel. As a result, passenger numbers will recover faster than traffic measured in RPKs. Recovery to pre-COVID-19 levels, however, will also slide by a year from 2022 to 2023. For 2020, global passenger numbers (enplanements) are expected to decline by 55% compared to 2019, worsened from the April forecast of 46%.
June 2020 passenger traffic foreshadowed the slower-than-expected recovery. Traffic, measures in RPK, fell 86.5% compared to the year-ago period. That is only slightly improved from a 91.0% contraction in May. This was driven by rising demand in domestic markets, particularly China. The June load factor set an all-time low for the month at 57.6%.
IATA’s more pessimistic recovery outlook is based on a number of recent trends:
- Slow virus containment in the US and developing economies: Although developed economies outside of the US have been largely successful in containing the spread of the virus, renewed outbreaks have occurred in these economies, and in China. Furthermore, there is little sign of virus containment in many important emerging economies, which in combination with the US, represent around 40% of global air travel markets. Their continued closure, particularly to international travel, is a significant drag on recovery.
- Reduced corporate travel: Corporate travel budgets are expected to be very constrained as companies continue to be under financial pressure even as the economy improves. In addition, while historically GDP growth and air travel have been highly correlated, surveys suggest this link has weakened, particularly with regard to business travel, as video conferencing appears to have made significant inroads as a substitute for in-person meetings.
- Weak consumer confidence: While pent-up demand exists for VFR (visiting friends and relatives) and leisure travel, consumer confidence is weak in the face of concerns over job security and rising unemployment, as well as risks of catching COVID-19. Some 55% of respondents to IATA’s June passenger survey don’t plan to travel in 2020.
As a result of these factors, IATA’s revised baseline forecast is for global enplanements to fall 55% in 2020 compared to 2019 (the April forecast was for a 46% decline). Passenger numbers are expected to rise 62% in 2021 off the depressed 2020 base, but will still be down almost 30% compared to 2019. A full recovery to 2019 levels is not expected until 2023, one year later than previously forecast.
And IATA says that since domestic markets are opening ahead of international markets, and because passengers appear to prefer short haul travel in the current environment, RPKs will recover more slowly, with passenger traffic expected to return to 2019 levels in 2024, one year later than previously forecast.
Scientific advances in fighting COVID-19 including development of a successful vaccine, could allow a faster recovery. However, at present there appears to be more downside risk than upside to the baseline forecast.
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s director general and CEO, said of the forecast: “Passenger traffic hit bottom in April, but the strength of the upturn has been very weak. What improvement we have seen has been domestic flying. International markets remain largely closed. Consumer confidence is depressed and not helped by the UK’s weekend decision to impose a blanket quarantine on all travelers returning from Spain. And in many parts of the world infections are still rising. All of this points to a longer recovery period and more pain for the industry and the global economy.”
IATA’s boss continued: “For airlines, this is bad news that points to the need for governments to continue with relief measures — financial and otherwise. A full Northern Winter season waiver on the 80-20 use-it-or-lose it slot rule, for example, would provide critical relief to airlines in planning schedules amid unpredictable demand patterns. Airlines are planning their schedules. They need to keep sharply focused on meeting demand and not meeting slot rules that were never meant to accommodate the sharp fluctuations of a crisis. The earlier we know the slot rules the better, but we are still waiting for governments in key markets to confirm a waiver.”
As for the bottom line, de Juniac said: “Domestic traffic improvements notwithstanding, international traffic, which in normal times accounts for close to two-thirds of global air travel, remains virtually non-existent. Most countries are still closed to international arrivals or have imposed quarantines, that have the same effect as an outright lockdown. Summer — our industry’s busiest season — is passing by rapidly; with little chance for an upswing in international air travel unless governments move quickly and decisively to find alternatives to border closures, confidence-destroying stop-start re-openings and demand-killing quarantine.”
And IATA is urging governments to implement a layer of measures including the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) global guidelines for restoring air connectivity contained in ICAO’s Takeoff: Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis.
As well, IATA sees potential for accurate, fast, scalable and affordable testing measures and comprehensive contact tracing to play a role in managing the risk of virus spread while re-connecting economies and re-starting travel and tourism.
Said de Juniac: “We need to learn to manage the risks of living with COVID-19 with targeted and predictable measures that will safely re-build traveler confidence and shattered economies.”