Last year was a “catastrophe” for global airlines as the Covid pandemic triggered the sharpest decline in traffic in aviation history.

Passenger demand dropped by almost 66% compared to 2019 and forward bookings have been falling sharply since late December, according to latest Iata data.

Bookings for future travel made in January 2021 were down 70% compared to a year ago, putting further pressure on airline cash positions and potentially impacting the timing of the expected recovery, the trade body warned.

International passenger demand in 2020 collapsed by 75.6% while domestic demand was down by almost half.

Total traffic in December was 69.7% down on the same month in 2019, little improved from the 70.4% contraction in November.

Capacity in the month dropped by 56.7% and load factor fell 24.6 percentage points to 57.5%.

Iata’s forecast for 2021 is for a 50.4% improvement on 2020 demand that would bring the industry to 50.6% of 2019 levels.

“While this view remains unchanged, there is a severe downside risk if more severe travel restrictions in response to new variants persist,” the association warned.

“Should such a scenario materialise, demand improvement could be limited to just 13% over 2020 levels, leaving the industry at 38% of 2019 levels.”

Iata director general and chief executive Alexandre de Juniac  said: “Last year was a catastrophe. There is no other way to describe it.

“What recovery there was over the northern hemisphere summer season stalled in autumn and the situation turned dramatically worse over the year-end holiday season, as more severe travel restrictions were imposed in the face of new outbreaks and new strains of COVID-19.”

He added: “Optimism that the arrival and initial distribution of vaccines would lead to a prompt and orderly restoration in global air travel have been dashed in the face of new outbreaks and new mutations of the disease.

“The world is more locked down today than at virtually any point in the past 12 months and passengers face a bewildering array of rapidly changing and globally unco-ordinated travel restrictions.

“We urge governments to work with industry to develop the standards for vaccination, testing, and validation that will enable governments to have confidence that borders can reopen and international air travel can resume once the virus threat has been neutralised.

“The Iata Travel Pass will help this process, by providing passengers with an app to easily and securely manage their travel in line with any government requirements for Covid-19 testing or vaccine information.

“In the meantime, the airline industry will require continued financial support from governments in order to remain viable.”