COVID killed 2021 traffic for Asia-Pacific airlines

Air cargo has been a 'silver lining for the aviation industry, with strong demand helping to partially mitigate the loss in passenger revenue'

APAS Aircraft Storage Alice Springs
Airlines like Singapore Airlines are bringing planes out of storage as traffic improves with the removal of some COVID restrictions. (PHOTO: Steve Strike/Outback Photographics) traffic results for the full calendar year 2021 released by the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) showed continued decimation in international air passenger demand for the region’s airlines, as tight border restrictions implemented in response to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic dashed hopes of recovery in air travel markets.

Overall, the 16.7 million international passengers carried in the year 2021 represented just 4.4 percent of the volumes recorded in pre-pandemic 2019, while offered seat capacity averaged 13.8 percent of the levels registered in 2019. For the full year, the international passenger load factor was a paltry 32 percent, underscoring the ongoing challenging conditions faced by the region’s airlines in the passenger sector.

On the other hand, international air cargo markets saw encouraging growth over the course of the year. With major manufacturing hubs located in the region, Asia-Pacific airlines benefitted from buoyant export demand for consumer and intermediate goods. In addition, supply chain bottlenecks at container shipping ports boosted demand for shipments by air. For the full year 2021, international air cargo demand as measured in freight tonne kilometres (FTK) registered a robust 20.1 percent year-on-year increase, after posting a 15.4 percent annual decline in the year 2020 when the widening spread of the COVID-19 pandemic severely curbed economic growth across the world.

Singapore Airlines hopes the government’s Vaccinated Travel Lanes will bring people back to flying. A lone student waits to say goodbye to a friend in a nearly deserted departure hall. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

Compared to the growth in demand, offered freight capacity expanded at a markedly slower pace of 8.1 percent in 2021, as the drastically reduced international passenger operations adversely affected belly-hold cargo capacity, although this was partly mitigated by the deployment of cargo-only passenger flights and increased freighter operations. As a result, the international freight load factor climbed 7.4 percentage points to 74.3 percent, the highest annual average on record.

SIA, like other carriers, has seen its cargo business grow, but bellyhold cargo is troubled because of the cut in passenger flights. (PHOTO: Singapore Airlines Cargo)

“For a second year running international passenger travel remained severely suppressed, as a result of strict border measures imposed throughout the region and elsewhere. It is the worst crisis the region’s airlines have ever faced in terms of duration and depth,” said  Subhas Menon, AAPA’s director general. “As vaccination programmes got under way, some governments began to ease travel restrictions in the later part of the year, supporting some improvement in the number of international passengers carried in December to 7.6 percent of 2019 volumes. However, the emergence of the Omicron variant has put the brakes on recovery.

Passengers in protective overall and masks at Suvarnabhumi Airport going to check-in for repatriation flights and waving goodbye during COVID-19 outbreak. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

“The air cargo business segment has been a silver lining for the aviation industry, with strong demand helping to partially mitigate the loss in passenger revenue,” Menon said. “In FTK terms, international air cargo demand for the year 2021 has recovered to just above pre-crisis levels. Overall, while 2021 will be remembered as one of the most challenging years for the region’s airlines, it has also demonstrated the industry’s extraordinary resilience as airlines continue to play a vital role in connecting people and transporting essential goods across the world. For meaningful recovery to take place, border restrictions would need to be eased on a consistent basis, and the current multilayered travel requirements streamlined and simplified for travellers. Collaboration among aviation stakeholders and governments is key to the safe and sustained resumption of air travel.”

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