Analysis: The air traffic recovery – some caveats

Iata reported a ‘full recovery’ in air passenger traffic in February. Eurocontrol data suggested no such thing. Which was right? Ian Taylor reports

Airline association Iata’s report of a “full recovery” in air passenger traffic to pre-Covid levels in February contrasted with data for the same month from European air navigation organisation Eurocontrol.

Iata reported total passenger traffic in the month up 5.7% on February 2019, with domestic traffic 13.7% ahead of 2019 and international traffic 0.9% ahead.

However, Eurocontrol reported the number of flights in Europe in February was nine percentage points below the February 2019 level.

How could both sets of figures be correct? Two important qualifications are required in interpretating the data.

Iata records traffic in revenue passenger-kilometres (RPKs), a measure of the distance flown by paying passengers. Eurocontrol reports the number of flights.

The latter could miss an increase in the number of passengers if aircraft are operating with a higher average load factor, i.e. fuller, or aircraft are on average larger than pre-Covid-19.

However, the Iata RPK measure is open to greater distortion because of the war in Ukraine and closure of Russian airspace to many carriers. This has increased the length of flights between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in some cases by two to three hours.

The greater distances flown would inflate the RPK figures. In its report on February’s traffic figures, Eurocontrol noted: “Flights in particular from and to the Middle East and Asia are flying longer distances.”

The Iata figures were also inflated by a second factor – the heightened travel volumes around China’s Lunar New Year on February 10.

Iata reported “record-breaking traffic levels” in China and noted February passenger flows in the country were “the highest in two decades”. The record China figures barely impact on the Eurocontrol data except for the number of flights between Europe and China.

Tellingly, Iata also noted the increase in growth year on year in February “came after four months of decline”, suggesting it was something of an anomaly in a trajectory which fits more with Eurocontrol’s figures and forecast.

Two additional points are worth noting. First, the 21.5% growth year on year in passenger traffic reported by Iata was overwhelmingly driven by the Asia-Pacific region where traffic soared 53% on February 2023, reflecting not just the Lunar New Year but the region’s slower recovery from Covid-19 at the start of last year.

Second, both the Iata and Eurocontrol figures were boosted by the additional day’s flying in the month on February 29 because 2024 is a leap year. The pre-pandemic comparison year of 2019 was not.

So, a more valid comparison would require Iata’s figures be reduced by more than 3.5%.

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