Demand for air travel has seen its steepest decline since 9/11, according to new data from the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
Traffic data showed demand for February 2020 fell just over 14% compared to February 2019, with a collapse in domestic travel in China and a sharp fall in international demand to, from and within the Asia-Pacific region.
Carriers in the Asia-Pacific region saw a drop of 41% in demand. Chinese airlines’ domestic traffic fell 83.6% in February – the worst outcome since Iata began tracking the market in 2000.
Airlines scrambled to trim capacity, which fell 8.7%. Load factor fell 4.8 percentage points to 75.9%.
“Airlines were hit by a sledgehammer called COVID-19 in February,” said Alexandre de Juniac, Iata director general and chief executive.
“Borders were closed in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. And the impact on aviation has left airlines with little to do except cut costs and take emergency measures in an attempt to survive in these extraordinary circumstances. And it has only grown worse. Without a doubt this is the biggest crisis that the industry has ever faced.”
Demand for European carriers in February was virtually flat compared to a year ago. It was the region’s weakest performance in a decade and was driven by routes to and from Asia, where the growth rate slowed by 25 percentage points versus January. Lockdowns in Italy began in 11 towns late February.
Iata said March data will reflect the impact of the spread of the virus across Europe and the related disruptions to travel. It said February capacity rose 0.7% and load factor slipped 0.4 percentage point to 82.0%.
De Juniac added: “This is aviation’s darkest hour and it is difficult to see a sunrise ahead unless governments do more to support the industry through this unprecedented global crisis.
“We are grateful to those that have stepped up with relief measures, but many more need to do so. Our most recent analysis shows that airlines may burn through $61 billion of their cash reserves during the second quarter ending June 30, 2020. This includes $35 billion in sold-but-unused tickets as a result of massive flight cancellations owing to government-imposed travel restrictions.
“We welcome the actions of those regulators who have relaxed rules so as to permit airlines to issue travel vouchers in lieu of refunds for unused tickets; and we urge others to do the same.
“Air transport will play a much-needed role in supporting the inevitable recovery. But without additional government action today, the industry will not be in a position to help when skies are brighter tomorrow.”