Asia-Pacific and the Middle East aviation industry is experiencing green shoots of recovery, according to the first edition of the Airport Industry Outlook, a quarterly report by Airports Council International Asia-Pacific (ACI APAC). The report, developed in partnership with Mott MacDonald — a global engineering, management and development consultancy — provides a snapshot of how airports in the region have performed during the first quarter of 2022 (Jan to March). This analysis also sheds light on two recurring themes which are currently impacting the industry — COVID-19 pandemic and the geo-political conflict.
The industry showed encouraging signs of recovery in the first quarter of 2022 — capacity was rebuilding in many parts of Asia-Pacific and Middle East region; domestic passenger traffic made considerable progress; cargo growth proved to be resilient and was above pre-pandemic levels. Despite the subdued pandemic environment, airports in the region continued to provide a safe and high service quality for the benefit of their passengers.
However, travel restrictions ranging from mandatory quarantines in designated facilities to pre-departure testing and on-arrival; suspension of international air travel in some parts of the region; geopolitical conflict and subsequent impacts on macroeconomic factors have proved to be detrimental to the overall growth of aviation.
“Analysis shows that travel restrictions have to a large degree failed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 mainly due to the high infectious nature of the omicron variant and have turned out to be a deterrent for the recovery of aviation, impacting the economy of the region,” said Stefano Baronci, director general of ACI Asia-Pacific. “Cargo business proves on the contrary the leading role that Asia-Pacific plays in the global economy. Despite an improving trend, airport financial margins remained far below pre-pandemic levels and are economically unsustainable. It is therefore time to remove ineffective restrictions and enable Nations to accelerate their economic growth. To achieve a truly sustainable recovery from the slump caused by COVID-19, co-operation and the establishment of standards that harmonise the processes for international travel between states are crucial. The global recovery will only be realised with the escalation of vaccination campaigns, development of digital health passes, and supportive policies from governments.”
Boosted by high rates of vaccination (70 percent or above in the six largest aviation markets), since early 2022, many countries have been easing entry requirements, but parts of Emerging and Developed East Asia (Japan, Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Mongolia and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) have kept quarantine requirements in place. In Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, currently 20 countries have no significant entry restrictions. China plays a key role in the region as most of Southeast Asian Airports and Australia are largely dependent on Chinese travellers. The reopening of international air travel to and from China will not only accelerate growth in the region, but also provides a thrust to the industry across the globe.
While domestic passenger traffic has made considerable progress, with the easing of restrictions within some countries, international traffic, which is the key revenue driver for airports in terms of passengers’ commercial spend, has remained largely stagnant due to restrictions and geopolitical tensions in and around the region. Considering airline seat capacity as a proxy to measure the flow of passengers, as compared to 2019 Q1 data, domestic traffic has made a recovery of 92 percent of pre-pandemic levels, but international seat capacity was still down 67 percent during Q1 as travel restrictions, quarantine and testing requirements continued to hamper the growth of air travel. The total domestic seat capacity is expected to recover to levels exceeding 2019 by Q2 2022 by approximately +4 percent. This is driven largely by Emerging East Asia (notably China), which has 15 percent more departing seats scheduled in 2022 than in 2019. Middle East domestic capacity remains below 2019 levels. In contrast, total international seat capacity in 2022 is 49 percent below 2019 levels, with significant variation between sub-regions. South Asia and the Middle East are only down about 15 percent on 2019 levels, while Emerging East Asia (China, Mongolia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is still down by 81 percent, and is once again experiencing stringent travel restrictions.
Cargo growth has proven to be resilient in comparison with passenger traffic, and remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels. As passenger airlines returns providing more belly capacity, air cargo is expected to continue its growth trajectory. The sub-regions with the largest cargo shares are Developed Asia (Japan, Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau) with 32 percent, followed by Emerging East Asia with 29 percent and Middle East 16 percent. Developed East Asia was the only region in Q4 2021 that recorded traffic levels above 2019 pre-COVID level. All other regions reported levels around 0.85 percent or above compared to 2019.
The EBITDA and net profit margins, based on a selection of sampled airports handling 30 percent of total annual regional traffic volumes in 2030, indicates improving conditions in Q4 2021 (October to December), driven by an increase in passenger traffic and optimisation of operating costs. However, the margins remained far below pre-pandemic levels and are economically unsustainable. Quarterly revenues remain 58 percent below the same period last year. Although revenues are improving slowly with traffic recovery, they remain at low levels, leading to large operating losses for airports. Total operating expenditures have declined since the start of the pandemic, with the decline having halved in percentage terms in Q4 2021 compared to the same quarter in the previous year.
Overall satisfaction scores for airports have increased continuously throughout the pandemic up to Q4 2021, and were around 5 percent higher compared to the same period in 2019. Similarly, Middle East performance is also above 2019 levels.