IATA: Government responses to Omicron threaten recovery

October passenger figures show improvement; Air cargo ‘well above’ pre-COVID levels

A medical and customs control team meets an Air Astana repatriation flight at Almaty airport with passengers from coronavirus-infected countries for quarantine. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

New-Singapore-BannerThe International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that the recovery in air travel continued in October 2021 with broad-based improvements in both domestic and international markets. It also warned that the imposition of travel bans by governments due to the emerging Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, against the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), could threaten the sector’s recovery. Because comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of COVID-19, unless otherwise noted all comparisons are to October 2019, which followed a normal demand pattern. (Download the IATA October passenger market analysis here.)

Total demand for air travel in October 2021 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was down 49.4 percent compared to October 2019. This was improved over the 53.3 percent fall recorded in September 2021, compared to two years earlier. Domestic markets were down 21.6 percent compared to October 2019, bettering the 24.2 percent decline recorded in September versus September 2019. International passenger demand in October was 65.5 percent below October 2019, compared to a 69.0 percent decline for September versus the 2019 period, with all regions showing improvement.

“October’s traffic performance reinforces that people will travel when they are permitted to. Unfortunately, government responses to the emergence of the Omicron variant are putting at risk the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.

International Passenger Markets

  • oct-21-paxEuropean carriers’ October international traffic declined 50.6 percent versus October 2019, much improved over the 56.5 percent drop in September compared to September 2019. Capacity dropped 41.3 percent and load factor fell 13.7 percentage points to 72.5 percent.
  • Asia-Pacific airlines saw their October international traffic fall 92.8 percent compared to October 2019, fractionally improved over the 93.1 percent decline recorded for September 2021 compared to two years ago. Capacity dropped 83.8 percent and the load factor was down 44.0 percentage points to 35.7 percent, the lowest among regions by far.
  • Middle Eastern airlines had a 60.3 percent demand drop in October compared to October 2019, a huge jump over the 67.1 percent traffic drop recorded in September against September 2019. Capacity declined 49.1 percent, and load factor slipped 16.1 percentage points to 57.5 percent.
  • North American carriers experienced a 57.0 percent traffic drop in October versus the 2019 period, improved from a 61.4 percent decline in September 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. Capacity dropped 43.2 percent, and load factor fell 20.0 percentage points to 62.4 percent.
  • Latin American airlines saw a 55.1 percent drop in October traffic, compared to the same month in 2019. In September, traffic was down 61.4 percent compared to two years ago. October capacity fell 52.5 percent and load factor dropped 4.3 percentage points to 76.9 percent, which was the highest load factor among the regions for the 13th consecutive month.
  • African airlines’ traffic fell 60.2 percent in October versus two years’ ago. Traffic in September was down 62.1 percent over the corresponding 2019 period. October capacity was down 49.0 percent and load factor declined 15.2 percentage points to 54.1 percent.

Domestic Passenger Markets

iata-domes-mrktIndia’s domestic market saw a 27.0 percent decline in October demand compared to October 2019 – greatly improved from a 40.5 percent fall in September following the easing of some control measures.

Russia’s domestic traffic was up 24 percent compared to October 2019, which was deceleration from the 29.3 percent growth recorded in September 2021 over the two-year ago period, attributable to a strong wave of COVID-19 and the start of the winter travel season.

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

“The lifting of the US restrictions on travel from some 33 countries last month raised hopes that a surge in pent-up travel demand would buoy traffic over the coming Northern Hemisphere winter. But the emergence of the Omicron variant panicked many governments into once again restricting or entirely removing the freedom to travel—even though WHO clearly advised that ‘blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.’ The logic of the WHO advice was evident within days of Omicron’s identification in South Africa, with its presence already confirmed in all continents. The ill-advised travel bans are as ineffective as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted,” said Walsh.

Last month, IATA released a Blueprint to help guide governments in safely re-opening their borders with data-driven decision-making. Specifically, IATA urged governments to focus on three key areas: Simplified health protocols; Digital solutions to process health credentials; COVID-19 measures proportionate to risk levels with a continuous review process. “Additionally, governments must address the terrible disparity in vaccination rates that has seen the developed world offering boosters at a time when less than 10 percent of the African continent is fully vaccinated,” said Walsh.

Air cargo demand up 9.4 percent in October

Carriers like Korean Air are relying on cargo to help them survive the pandemic. (PHOTO: Korean Air)

IATA also reported cargo demand continued to be well above pre-crisis levels and that the capacity constraints have eased slightly. As comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of COVID-19, unless otherwise noted, all comparisons below are to October 2019 which followed a normal demand pattern. Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs), was up 9.4 percent compared to October 2019 (10.4 percent for international operations). Capacity constraints have eased slightly but remain 7.2 percent below pre-COVID-19 levels (October 2019) (-8.0 percent for international operations). (Download the IATA October 2021 cargo market analysis here.)

Airlines are turning their pax cabin space into cargo holds. (PHOTO: Emirates)

“October data reflected an overall positive outlook for air cargo. Supply chain congestion continued to push manufacturers towards the speed of air cargo. Demand was up 9.4 percent in October compared to pre-crisis levels. And capacity constraints were slowly resolving as more passenger travel meant more belly capacity for air cargo. The impact of government reactions to the Omicron variant is a concern. If it dampens travel demand, capacity issues will become more acute. After almost two years of COVID-19, governments have the experience and tools to make better data-driven decisions than the mostly knee-jerk reactions to restrict travel that we have seen to date. Restrictions will not stop the spread of Omicron. Along with urgently reversing these policy mistakes, the focus of governments should be squarely on ensuring the integrity of supply chains and increasing the distribution of vaccines,” said IATA’s Walsh.

October Regional Performance

  • cargoAsia-Pacific airlines saw their international air cargo volumes increase 7.9 percent in October 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. This was close to a doubling in growth compared to the previous month’s 4 percent expansion. The improvement was partly driven by increased capacity on Europe-Asia routes as several important passenger routes reopened. Belly capacity between the continents was down 28.3 percent in October, much better than the 37.9 percent fall in September. International capacity in the region eased slightly in October, down 12.9 percent compared to the previous year, a significant improvement over the 18.9 percent drop in September.
  • North American carriers posted an 18.8 percent increase in international cargo volumes in October 2021 compared to October 2019. This was on par with September’s performance (18.9 percent). Demand for faster shipping times and strong US retail sales are underpinning the North American performance. International capacity was down 0.6 percent compared to October 2019, a significant improvement from the previous month.
  • European carriers saw an 8.6 percent increase in international cargo volumes in October 2021 compared to the same month in 2019, an improvement compared to the previous month (5.8 percent). Manufacturing activity, orders and long supplier delivery times remain favourable to air cargo demand. International capacity was down 7.4 percent compared to pre-crisis levels, a significant improvement from the previous month which was down 12.8 percent on pre-crisis levels.
  • Middle Eastern carriers experienced a 9.4 percent rise in international cargo volumes in October 2021 versus October 2019, a significant drop in performance compared to the previous month (18.4 percent). This was due to a deterioration in traffic on several key routes such as Middle East-Asia, and Middle East-North America. International capacity was down 8.6 percent compared to October 2019, a decrease compared to the previous month (4 percent).
  • Latin American carriers reported a decline of 6.6 percent in international cargo volumes in October compared to the 2019 period, which was the weakest performance of all regions, but an improvement compared to the previous month (a 17 percent fall). Capacity in October was down 28.3 percent on pre-crisis levels, a decrease from September, which was down 20.8 percent on the same month in 2019.
  • African airlines saw international cargo volumes increase by 26.7 percent in October, a deterioration from the previous month (35 percent) but still the largest increase of all regions. International capacity was 9.4 percent higher than pre-crisis levels, the only region in positive territory, albeit on small volumes.

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