IATA: Omicron slows passenger demand in January

The International Air Transport Association
Scenes like this one at Suvarnabhumi Airport are becoming rare as travel starts to resume in Asia and elsewhere. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that the recovery in air travel slowed for both domestic and international in January 2022 compared to December 2021, owing to the imposition of travel restrictions following the emergence of Omicron last November.

2021 Calendar year (% chg vs 2019)World share in 20211RPKASKPLF (%-pt)2PLF (level)3
Total Market100.0%82.3%51.8%10.8%64.5%
Asia Pacific27.5%19.4%15.7%1.8%57.6%
Latin America6.5%80.5%59.2%9.2%78.2%
Middle East6.5%128.1%64.8%16.4%59.1%
North America32.7%109.7%59.0%16.0%66.3%
1% of global RPKs   2Change in load factor vs same period in 2019 3Load Factor Level

Total demand for air travel in January 2022 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was up 82.3 percent compared to January 2021 However, it was down 4.9 percent compared to the previous month (December 2021) on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Download the IATA Passenger January Market Analysis here.

January domestic air travel was up 41.5 percent compared to the year-ago period but fell 7.2 percent compared to December 2021 on a seasonally adjusted basis. International RPKs rose 165.6 percent versus January 2021 but fell by 2.2 percent month-on-month between December 2021 and January 2022 on a seasonally adjusted basis.

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

“The recovery in air travel continued in January, despite hitting a speed bump called Omicron. Strengthened border controls did not stop the spread of the variant. But where population immunity was strong, the public health systems were not overwhelmed. Many governments are now adjusting COVID-19 polices to align with those for other endemic viruses. This includes lifting travel restrictions that have had such a devastating impact on lives, economies and the freedom to travel,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.

  • European carriers’ January international traffic rose 225.1 percent versus January 2021, which was up slightly compared to a 223.3 percent increase in December 2021 versus the same month in 2020. Capacity rose 129.9 percent and load factor climbed 19.4 percentage points to 66.4 percent.
  • Asia-Pacific airlines saw their January international traffic climb 124.4 percent compared to January 2021, down significantly from the 138.5 percent gain registered in December 2021 versus December 2020. Capacity rose 54.4 percent and the load factor was up 14.7 percentage points to 47.0 percent, still the lowest among regions.
  • Middle Eastern airlines had a 145.0 percent demand rise in January compared to January 2021, well down compared to the 178.2 percent increase in December 2021, versus the same month in 2020. January capacity rose 71.7 percent versus the year-ago period, and load factor climbed 17.5 percentage points to 58.6 percent.
  • North American carriers experienced a 148.8 percent traffic rise in January versus the 2021 period, significantly decreased versus the 185.4 percent rise in December 2021 compared to December 2020. Capacity rose 78.0 percent, and load factor climbed 17.0 percentage points to 59.9 percent.
  • Latin American airlines saw a 157.0 percent rise in January traffic, compared to the same month in 2021, an upturn over the 150.8 percent rise in December 2021 compared to December 2020. January capacity rose 91.2 percent and load factor increased 19.4 percentage points to 75.7 percent, which easily was the highest load factor among the regions for the 16th consecutive month.
  • African airlines’ traffic rose 17.9 percent in January 2022 versus a year ago, a slowdown compared to the 26.3 percent year-over-year increase recorded in December 2021. January 2022 capacity was up 6.3 percent and load factor climbed 6.0 percentage points to 60.5 percent.
  • India’s domestic RPKs fell by 18 percent year-on-year in January , which the biggest decline recorded for any of the domestic markets tracked by IATA. On a month-on-month basis, seasonally adjusted RPKs dropped by nearly 45 percent between December and January.
Carriers like Korean Air are relying on cargo to help them survive the pandemic. (PHOTO: Korean Air)

Despite the strong traffic growth recorded in January 2022 compared to a year ago, passenger demand remains far below pre-COVID-19 levels. Total RPKs in January were down 49.6 percent compared to January 2019. International traffic was down 62.4 percent, with domestic traffic off by 26.5 percent.

Domestic Passenger Markets
2021 Calendar year (% chg vs 2019)World share in 20211
RPKASKPLF (%-pt)2PLF (level)3
China P.R.17.8%-0.1%3.2%-2.0%60.6%
Russian Fed.4.5%23.8%21.5%1.6%84.4%

Russia-Ukraine Conflict

January figures do not include any impact from the Russia-Ukraine conflict which began at the end of February. The resulting sanctions and airspace closures are expected to have a negative impact on travel, primarily among neighbouring countries. The Ukraine market accounted for 3.3 percent of European passenger traffic and 0.8 percent of global traffic in 2021. The Russian international market represented 5.7 percent of European traffic (excluding Russia domestic market) and 1.3 percent of global traffic in 2021.

Airspace closures have led to rerouting or cancellations of flights on some routes, mostly in the Europe-Asia but also in Asia-North America market. This impact is mitigated owing to greatly diminished flight activity since borders in Asia were largely closed owing to COVID-19. In 2021, RPKs flown between Asia-North America and Asia-Europe accounted for 3.0 percent, and 4.5 percent, respectively, of global international RPKs.

In addition to these disruptions, the sudden spike in fuel prices is putting pressure on airline costs. “When we made our most recent industry financial forecast last autumn, we expected the airline industry to lose $11.6 billion in 2022 with jet fuel at $78/barrel and fuel accounting for 20 percent of costs. As of 4 March, jet fuel is trading at over $140/barrel. Absorbing such a massive hit on costs just as the industry is struggling to cut losses as it emerges from the two-year COVID-19 crisis is a huge challenge. If the jet fuel price stays that high, then over time, it is reasonable to expect that it will be reflected in airline yields,” said Walsh.

“The past few weeks have seen a dramatic shift by many governments around the world to ease or remove COVID-19-related travel restrictions and requirements as the disease enters its endemic phase. It’s vital that this process continue and even accelerate, to more quickly restore damaged global supply chains and enable people to resume their lives. One step to encourage a return to normality is to remove mask mandates for air travel. It makes no sense to continue to require masks on airplanes when they are no longer being required in shopping malls, theatres, or offices. Aircraft are equipped with highly sophisticated hospital quality filtration systems and have much higher air flow and air exchange rates than most other indoor environments where mask mandates already have been removed,” said Walsh.

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