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International passenger traffic down 89 percent in February, says IATA

GENEVA, Switzerland — The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that passenger traffic fell in February 2021, both compared to pre-COVID levels (February 2019) and compared to the immediate month prior (January 2021).

“Total demand for air travel in February 2021 (measured in revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) was down 74.7 percent compared to February 2019. That was worse than the 72.2 percent decline recorded in January 2021 versus two years ago.

International passenger demand in February was 88.7 percent below February 2019, a further drop from the 85.7 percent year-to-year decline recorded in January and the worst growth outcome since July 2020. Performance in all regions worsened compared to January 2021.

“Total domestic demand was down 51.0 percent versus pre-crisis (February 2019) levels. In January it was down 47.8 percent on the 2019 period. This largely was owing to weakness in China travel, driven by government requests that citizens stay at home during the Lunar New Year travel period,” IATA’s release stated.

IATA director-general Willie Walsh, said: “February showed no indication of a recovery in demand for international air travel. In fact, most indicators went in the wrong direction as travel restrictions tightened in the face of continuing concerns over new coronavirus variants. An important exception was the Australian domestic market. A relaxation of restrictions on domestic flying resulted in significantly more travel. This tells us that people have not lost their desire travel. They will fly, provided they can do so without facing quarantine measures.”

International passenger markets

Asia-Pacific airlines’ February traffic was down 95.2 percent compared to February 2019, little changed from the 94.8 percent decline registered for January 2021 compared to January 2019. The region continued to suffer from the steepest traffic declines for an eighth consecutive month. Capacity was down 87.5 percent and the load factor sank 50.0 percentage points to 31.1 percent, the lowest among regions.

European carriers recorded an 89.0 percent decline in traffic in February versus February 2019, substantially worse than the  83.4 percent decline in January compared to the same month in 2019. Capacity sank 80.5 percent and load factor fell by 36.0 percentage points to 46.4 percent.

Middle Eastern airlines saw demand fall 83.1 percent in February compared to February 2019, worsened from an 82.1 percent demand drop in January, versus the same month in 2019. Capacity fell 68.6 percent, and load factor declined 33.4 percentage points to 39.0 percent.

North American carriers’ February traffic sank 83.1 percent compared to the 2019 period, a deterioration from a 79.2 percent decline in January year to year. Capacity sagged 63.9 percent, and load factor dropped 41.9 percentage points to 36.7 percent.

Latin American airlines experienced an 83.5 percent demand drop in February, compared to the same month in 2019, markedly worse than the 78.5 percent decline in January 2019. February capacity was 75.4 percent down compared to February 2019 and load factor dropped 26.7 percentage points to 54.6 percent, highest among the regions for a fifth consecutive month.

African airlines’ traffic dropped 68.0 percent in February versus February two years ago, which was a setback compared to a 66.1 percent decline recorded in January compared to January 2019. February capacity contracted 54.6 percent versus February 2019, and load factor fell 20.5 percentage points to 49.1 percent.

Australia’s domestic traffic was down 60.5 percent in February compared to February 2019, dramatically improved compared to the 77.3 percent decline in January over 2019. Some state border restrictions were eased in early February.

US domestic traffic declined 56.1 percent in February versus the same month in 2019, improved from the 58.4 percent decline in January compared to two years ago. The improvement was driven by falling rates of contagion and accelerating vaccinations.

“The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently stated that vaccinated individuals can travel safely. That is good news. We have also recently seen Oxera-Edge Health research highlighting the efficacy of fast, accurate and affordable rapid tests for COVID-19. These developments should reassure governments that there are ways to efficiently manage the risks of COVID-19 without relying on demand-killing quarantine measures and/or expensive and time-consuming PCR testing.

“Two key components for an efficient restart of travel need to be urgently progressed. The first is the development of global standards for digital COVID-19 test and/or vaccination certificates. The second is government agreement to accept certificates digitally. Our experiences to date already demonstrate that paper-based systems are not a sustainable option. They are vulnerable to fraud. And, even with the limited amount of flying today, the check-in process needs pre-COVID-19 staffing levels just to handle the paperwork,” said director-general Walsh.

Additionally, “Paper processes will not be sustainable when travel ramps up. The IATA Travel Pass app was developed precisely in anticipation of this need to manage health credentials digitally. Its first full implementation trial is focused on Singapore, where the government has already announced that it will accept health certificates through the app. This will be an essential consideration for all governments when they are ready to relink their economies with the world through air travel,” he said.

Full February Air Passenger Market Analysis (pdf), including 2021 vs. 2020 comparisons
Presentation: Passenger market remains weak while air cargo strengthens (pdf)



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