IATA: Air passenger numbers to recover in 2024

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(PHOTO: Shutterstock)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects overall traveller numbers to reach 4 billion in 2024 (counting multi-sector connecting trips as one passenger), exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels (103 percent of the 2019 total). Expectations for the shape of the near-term recovery have shifted slightly, reflecting the evolution of government-imposed travel restrictions in some markets. The overall picture presented in the latest update to IATA’s long-term forecast, however, is unchanged from what was expected in November, prior to the Omicron variant.

IATA Director General Willie Walsh at the 2021 annual general meeting in Boston. (PHOTO: IATA)

“The trajectory for the recovery in passenger numbers from COVID-19 was not changed by the Omicron variant. People want to travel. And when travel restrictions are lifted, they return to the skies. There is still a long way to go to reach a normal state of affairs, but the forecast for the evolution in passenger numbers gives good reason to be optimistic,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.

The February update to the long-term forecast includes the following highlights:

  • In 2021, overall traveler numbers were 47 percent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 83 percent in 2022, 94 percent in 2023, 103 percent in 2024 and 111 percent in 2025.
  • In 2021, international traveler numbers were 27 percent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 69 percent in 2022, 82 percent in 2023, 92 percent in 2024 and 101 percent in 2025.

This is a slightly more optimistic near-term international recovery scenario compared to November 2021, based on the progressive relaxation or elimination of travel restrictions in many markets. This has seen improvements in the major North Atlantic and intra-European markets, strengthening the baseline for recovery. Asia-Pacific is expected to continue to lag the recovery with the region’s largest market, China, not showing any signs of relaxing its severe border measures in the near future.

  • In 2021, domestic traveller numbers were 61 percent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 93 percent in 2022, 103 percent in 2023, 111 percent in 2024 and 118 percent in 2025.

The outlook for the evolution of domestic traveler numbers is slightly more pessimistic than in November. While the US and Russian domestic markets have recovered, the same is not true for the other major domestic markets of China, Canada, Japan and Australia.

“The biggest and most immediate drivers of passenger numbers are the restrictions that governments place on travel. Fortunately, more governments have understood that travel restrictions have little to no long-term impact on the spread of a virus. And the economic and social hardship caused for very limited benefit is simply no longer acceptable in a growing number of markets. As a result, the progressive removal of restrictions is giving a much-needed boost to the prospects for travel,” said Walsh.

IATA reiterated its call for:

  • The removal of all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine
  • Pre-departure antigen testing to enable quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travelers
  • Removing all travel bans, and
  • Accelerating the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travelers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.

Regional Variations

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

Not all markets or market sectors are recovering at the same pace. The forecast does not calculate the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In general, air transport is resilient against shocks and this conflict is unlikely to impact the long-term growth of air transport. It is too early to estimate what the near-term consequences will be for aviation, but it is clear that there are downside risks, in particular in markets with exposure to the conflict.

Sensitivity factors will include the geographic extent, severity, and time-period for sanctions and/or airspace closures. These impacts would be felt most severely in Russia, Ukraine and neighbouring areas.  Pre-COVID-19, Russia, was the 11th largest market for air transport services in terms of passenger numbers, including its large domestic market. Ukraine ranked 48.

The impact on airline costs as a result of fluctuations in energy prices or rerouting to avoid Russian airspace could have broader implications. Consumer confidence and economic activity are likely to be impacted even outside of Eastern Europe.

“In general, we are moving in the right direction, but there are some concerns. Asia-Pacific is the laggard of the recovery. While Australia and New Zealand have announced measures to reconnect with the world, China is showing no signs of relaxing its zero-COVID strategy. The resulting localised lock-downs in its domestic market are depressing global passenger numbers even as other major markets like the US are largely back to normal,” said Walsh.

Asia-Pacific: The slow removal of international travel restrictions, and the likelihood of renewed domestic restrictions during COVID outbreaks, mean that traffic to/from/within Asia Pacific will only reach 68 percent of 2019 levels in 2022, the weakest outcome of the main regions. IATA said 2019 levels should be recovered in 2025 (109 percent) due to a slow recovery on international traffic in the region.

Europe: In the next few years, the intra-Europe market is expected to benefit from passenger preferences for short-haul travel as confidence rebuilds. This will be facilitated by increasingly harmonised and restriction-free movement within the EU. Total passenger numbers to/from/within Europe are expected to reach 86 percent of 2019 values in 2022, before making a full recovery in 2024 (105 percent).

North America: After a resilient 2021, traffic to/from/within North America will continue to perform strongly in 2022 as the US domestic market returns to pre-crisis trends, and with ongoing improvements in international travel. In 2022, passenger numbers will reach 94 percent of 2019 levels, and full recovery is expected in 2023 (102 percent), ahead of other regions.

Africa: Africa’s passenger traffic prospects are somewhat weaker in the near-term, due to slow progress in vaccinating the population, and the impact of the crisis on developing economies. Passenger numbers to/from/within Africa will recover more gradually than in other regions, reaching 76 percent of 2019 levels in 2022, surpassing pre-crisis levels only in 2025 (101 percent).

Middle East: With limited short-haul markets, the Middle East focus on long-haul connectivity through its hubs is expected to result in slower recovery, IATA said in its report. Passenger numbers to, from, and within the Middle East are expected to reach 81 percent of pre-COVID 2019 levels in 2022, 98 percent in 2024 and 105 percent in 2025, according to the IATA data.

Latin America: Traffic to/from/within Latin America has been relatively resilient during the pandemic and is forecast to see a strong 2022, with limited travel restrictions and dynamic passenger flows within the region and to/from North America. IATA said 2019 passenger numbers are forecast to be surpassed in 2023 for Central America (102 percent), followed by South America in 2024 (103 percent) and the Caribbean in 2025 (101 percent).

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