The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced passenger data for March 2022 demonstrating that the recovery of air travel continues. Impacts from the conflict in Ukraine on air travel demand were quite limited overall while Omicron-related effects continued to be confined largely to Asian domestic markets.
Total traffic in March 2022 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was up 76.0 percent compared to March 2021. Although that was lower than the 115.9 percent rise in February year-over-year demand, volumes in March were the closest to 2019 pre-pandemic levels, at 41 percent below.
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March 2022 domestic traffic was up 11.7 percent compared to the year-ago period, far below the 59.4 percent year-over-year improvement recorded in February. This largely was a result of the Omicron-related lockdowns in China. March domestic RPKs were down 23.2 percent versus March 2019. International RPKs rose 285.3 percent versus March 2021, exceeding the 259.2 percent gain experienced in February versus the year-earlier period. Most regions boosted their performance compared to the prior month, led by carriers in Europe. March 2022 international RPKs were down 51.9 percent compared to the same month in 2019.
“With barriers to travel coming down in most places, we are seeing the long-expected surge in pent-up demand finally being realised. Unfortunately, we are also seeing long delays at many airports with insufficient resources to handle the growing numbers. This must be addressed urgently to avoid frustrating consumer enthusiasm for air travel,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.
International Passenger Markets
- European carriers continued to lead the recovery, with March traffic rising 425.4 percent versus March 2021, improved over the 384.6 percent increase in February 2022 compared to the same month in 2021. The impact of the war in Ukraine has been relatively limited outside of traffic to/from Russia and countries neighboring the conflict. Capacity rose 224.5 percent, and load factor climbed 27.8 percentage points to 72.7 percent.
- Asia-Pacific airlines had a 197.1 percent rise in March traffic compared to March 2021, up over the 146.5 percent gain registered in February 2022 versus February 2021. While China and Japan remain restrictive to foreign visitors, other countries are becoming more relaxed, including South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, and Thailand. Capacity rose 70.7 percent and the load factor was up 24.1 percentage points to 56.6 percent, the lowest among regions.
- Middle Eastern airlines’ traffic rose 245.8 percent in March compared to March 2021, an improvement compared to the 218.2 percent increase in February 2022, versus the same month in 2021. March capacity rose 96.6 percent versus the year-ago period, and load factor climbed 31.1 percentage points to 72.1 percent.
- North American carriers experienced a 227.8 percent traffic rise in March versus the 2021 period, slightly down on the 237.3 percent rise in February 2022 over February 2021. Capacity rose 91.9 percent, and load factor climbed 31.2 percentage points to 75.4 percent.
- Latin American airlines’ March traffic rose 239.9 percent compared to the same month in 2021, little changed from the 241.9 percent increase in February 2022 compared to February 2021. The region benefitted from the end of bankruptcy procedures for some of the main carriers based there. March capacity rose 173.2 percent and load factor increased 15.8 percentage points to 80.3 percent, which was the highest load factor among the regions for the 18th consecutive month.
- African airlines had a 91.8 percent rise in March RPKs versus a year ago, improved compared to the 70.8 percent year-over-year increase recorded in February 2022 compared to the same month in 2021. Air travel demand is challenged by low vaccination rates on the continent as well as impacts from rising inflation. March 2022 capacity was up 49.9 percent and load factor climbed 14.1 percentage points to 64.5 percent.
Domestic Passenger Markets
- China’s domestic traffic was down 59.1 percent in March, compared to March 2021, which was a large reversal compared to the 32.8 percent year-over-year growth recorded in February. This was owing to the drastic lockdowns and travel restrictions following the spread of Omicron in the country.
- India’s domestic RPKs rose 32.3 percent year-on-year in March, strongly reversing the 2.4 percent decline in February versus the prior year.
2022 vs 2019
March’s strong growth in most markers compared to a year ago, is helping passenger demand catch-up to 2019 levels. Total RPKs in March were down 41.3 percent compared to March 2019, an improvement compared to the 45.5 percent decline recorded in February versus the same month in 2019. The domestic recovery continues to outpace that of international markets despite the setback in China.
“The ongoing recovery in air travel is excellent news for the global economy, for friends and families whose forced separations are being ended, and for the millions of people who depend on air transport for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, some government actions are emerging as key impediments to recovery. This is demonstrated most dramatically in the Netherlands,” Walsh said. “Schiphol airport is being allowed by the regulator to repay itself on the back of airlines and consumers for COVID-19 losses with a 37 percent hike in airport charges over the next three years. Simultaneously, the airport has asked airlines to cancel bookings and new sales this week, at huge inconvenience to passengers, claiming shortfalls in airport staffing, including government provided security functions. And the government itself is planning to increase passenger taxes by 400 euros million annually with the stated purpose of discouraging travel.
“Seeing the Dutch government work to dismantle connectivity, fail to provide critical airport operational resources and enable price gouging by its hub airport is a destructive triple whammy,” Walsh said. “These actions will cost jobs. They will hurt consumers who already struggling with price inflation. And they will deplete resources that airlines need to achieve their Net Zero sustainability commitment. The Dutch government has forgotten a key lesson from the COVID-19 crisis which is that everyone’s quality of life suffers without efficient air connectivity. It must reverse course, and others must not follow their terrible example. To secure the recovery and its economic and social benefits, the immediate priority is for governments to have plans in place to meet expected demand this summer. Many people have waited two years for a summer holiday – it should not be ruined through lack of preparation.”