IATA in aid call as airline fortunes remain grounded

The world’s aviation industry has called for more support as January delivered very contrasting fortunes for passenger and cargo operators.

New figures showed global cargo business bounced back to its pre-COVID levels, but passenger levels continued in free fall despite the hopes that mass vaccination would act as a catalyst to travel.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released its global data for January 2021 data for global air cargo markets showing that air cargo demand returned to pre-COVID levels (January 2019) for the first time since the onset of the crisis. January demand also showed strong month-to-month growth over December 2020 levels.

However, it also revealed that for the passenger sector traffic fell in January 2021, both compared to pre-COVID levels (January 2019) and compared to the immediate month prior (December 2020).

Total demand in January 2021 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was down 72.0% compared to January 2019. The figure was worse than the 69.7% year-over-year decline recorded in December 2020. IATA said this weakening was largely driven by stricter domestic travel controls in China over the Lunar New Year holiday period.

International passenger demand in January was 85.6% below January 2019, a further drop compared to the 85.3% year-to-year decline recorded in December.

“2021 is starting off worse than 2020 ended and that is saying a lot. Even as vaccination programs gather pace, new COVID variants are leading governments to increase travel restrictions. The uncertainty around how long these restrictions will last also has an impact on future travel. Forward bookings in February this year for the Northern Hemisphere summer travel season were 78% below levels in February 2019,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

For the cargo sector it was far better news.

Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs), was up 1.1.% compared to January 2019 and +3% compared to December 2020. All regions saw month-on-month improvement in air cargo demand, and North America and Africa were the strongest performers.

“Air cargo traffic is back to pre-crisis levels and that is some much-needed good news for the global economy,” added Mr de Juniac. “But while there is a strong demand to ship goods, our ability is capped by the shortage of belly capacity normally provided by passenger aircraft. That should be a sign to governments that they need to share their plans for restart so that the industry has clarity in terms of how soon more capacity can be brought online. In normal times, a third of world trade by value moves by air.

“This high value commerce is vital to helping restore COVID damaged economies—not to mention the critical role air cargo is playing in distributing lifesaving vaccines that must continue for the foreseeable future.”

International passenger demand in January was 85.6% below January 2019, a further drop compared to the 85.3% year-to-year decline recorded in December.

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