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Industry Statistics Confirm Worst Year on Record as Guidance is Released to Help Aviation’s Recovery

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released the IATA World Air Transport Statistics (WATS) publication with performance figures for 2020 demonstrating the devastating effects on global air transport during the year of the COVID-19 crisis.

Just 1.8 billion passengers flew in 2020, a decrease of 60.2% compared to the 4.5 billion who flew in 2019. Industry-wide air travel demand (measured in revenue passenger-kilometers, or RPKs) dropped by 65.9% year-on-year. International passenger demand decreased by 75.6% compared to the year prior, and domestic air passenger demand dropped by 48.8% compared to 2019. The decline in air passengers transported in 2020 was the largest recorded since global RPKs started being tracked around 1950.

Air connectivity declined by more than half in 2020 with the number of routes connecting airports falling dramatically at the outset of the crisis and was down more than 60% year-on-year in April 2020.

Total industry passenger revenues fell by 69% to $189 billion in 2020, and net losses were $126.4 billion in total.

Air freight was the bright spot in air transport for 2020, as the market adapted to keep goods moving—including vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE) and vital medical supplies—despite the massive drop in capacity from the bellies of passenger aircraft. Industry-wide available cargo tonne-kilometers fell 21.4% year-on-year in 2020 and this led to a capacity crunch, with the industry-wide cargo load factor up 7.0 percentage points to 53.8%. This is the highest value in the IATA series started in 1990.

At the end of the year, industry-wide cargo tonne-kilometers had returned close to pre-crisis values. However, the yearly decline in cargo demand was still the largest since the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, at a sizeable 9.7% year-on-year in 2020.

“2020 was a year that we’d all like to forget. But analyzing the performance statistics for the year reveals an amazing story of perseverance. At the depth of the crisis in April 2020, 66% of the world’s commercial air transport fleet was grounded as governments closed borders or imposed strict quarantines. A million jobs disappeared. And industry losses for the year totaled $126 billion. Many governments recognized aviation’s critical contributions and provided financial lifelines and other forms of support. But it was the rapid actions by airlines and the commitment of our people that saw the airline industry through the most difficult year in its history,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

Meanwhile, Airports Council International (ACI) World has published updated guidance for airports to aid in their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on their operations.

As the industry prepares to sustain a long-term recovery, the third edition of Airport Operations Business Restart and Recovery has been retitled to Airport Operations and COVID-19: Business Recovery. ACI has not only updated its guidance on the practical and efficient health and operational measures that can be introduced to support safe travel, but has also expanded the guidance to include information on health passes and vaccinations, as well as risk management when returning to operations, with a particular focus on human factors during recovery.

The publication has been sponsored by Honeywell, which has also contributed new chapters on technological solutions for healthy airports.

“Over the last 15 months, ACI has worked with governments, international organizations and industry partners to address the concerns of the aviation industry in an effort to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and return to a thriving and dynamic business,” ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira said.

“Airports have shown considerable resilience and ingenuity in developing procedures to help passengers feel safe and secure, and ACI has promoted the interests of airports in the global community, which goes well beyond aviation. The ACI Airport Health Accreditation Programme is a clear example of our shared commitment to prioritized health, safety, and the customer experience, on the path to recovery.”

ACI World expects the return to business for the industry to take place in phases. The first phase will see mainly domestic travel recovery with a slow increase in passenger volume. Then a gradual scale-up in capacity based on passenger demand is expected to follow until a final return to more normal passenger volumes.

Earlier this year the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) published updated guidance, to which ACI has provided its input, to help ensure global alignment. The ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Task Force then published its policy recommendations to States, the Take-Off Guidance Document, and the Manual on Cross Border Testing and Risk Management.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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