Global passenger traffic recovered modestly in 2021, with the latest International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) economic impact analysis of Covid-19 on civil aviation revealing that the number of passengers worldwide was 2.3 billion, up from the 60 percent drop seen in 2020 but 49 percent below pre-pandemic (2019) levels.
Global seat capacity offered by airlines improved by 20 percent during the same period, exceeding the growth in passenger demand.
The overall passenger load factor in 2021 stood at 68 percent, compared to 82 percent in 2019, and airlines worldwide incurred losses of 324 billion dollars following 372 billion dollars in 2020.
Fig.1 – World passenger traffic evolution, 1945–2022
A year of sporadic recoveries
According to ICAO, the first quarter of 2021 saw a decrease in the rate of global air traffic recovery due to the sharp spike at that time in COVID-19 infections.
The situation stabilized slightly in the second and third quarters, mainly due to rising vaccination rates, and with an accompanying relaxation in travel restrictions in various parts of the world during the peak travel season.
However this upward trend stalled quickly in the fourth quarter, with the emergence of the Omicron variant.
The impact of the pandemic continues to weigh disproportionately on domestic and international travel, with the former recovering at a faster pace.
Overall, domestic passenger traffic has recovered to 68 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while international traffic remains at just 28 percent.
Fig. 2 – Regional difference in the pace of recovery (passenger number compared to 2019 levels)
The global aviation recovery has also been characterized by significant regional variation, with the North and Latin America and Caribbean regions showing the highest recovery rates, Europe picking up noticeably during the summer travel season, and Africa and the Middle East recovering moderately, until Africa plunged again due to Omicron restrictions.
The Asia/Pacific was the weakest performing region as a result of slowed domestic and stagnant international traffic levels.
Outlook still uncertain – Scenarios
Both positive signs and downside risks confront analysts trying to gauge how the aviation recovery will play out over the remainder of 2022.
ICAO currently projects that 2022 passenger totals will be 26 to 31 percent less than pre-pandemic levels, with seat capacity down 20 to 23 percent.
In an optimistic scenario, passenger traffic is expected to recover to 86 percent of its 2019 levels by December 2022, based on 73 percent international traffic recovery and 95 percent domestic.
More pessimistic scenarios point to a 75 percent recovery based on 58 percent international and 86 percent domestic recoveries. This projected continued decline in traffic could translate into estimated losses of 186–217 billion dollars in gross airline passenger operating revenues in 2022 compared to 2019.
ICAO’s longer-term forecasts indicate that current downturns will also affect traffic patterns over the longer-term, with the 2018-2050 compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of global revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) currently projected at 3.6 percent, down from the 4.2 percent forecast pre-Covid.