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Global air traffic recovery was slowing before Omicron, Iata reports

The global recovery in air travel was slowing before the Omicron wave of Covid-19 hit in late November, according to latest Iata data.

Airline association Iata reported month-on-month growth in traffic eased from 7.9% in October to 1.7% in November.

It noted: “The number of scheduled flights is trending upwards across domestic and, in particular, international routes in Q1 2022 . . . [and] passenger load factors continue to recover, albeit slowly, as airlines improve their capacity management despite the pandemic uncertainty.”

However, average load factors remain substantially down on 2019 in all regions other than Latin America and North America.

The recovery in Asia Pacific remains way behind the rest of the world despite China’s domestic aviation sector having led the industry recovery from the first wave of the virus in 2020.

Asia-Pacific airlines remained by far the worst affected in November with international traffic only just over 10% of 2019’s level, only two percentage points better than in October.

Yet capacity in the region, at 20% of 2019, left load factors 38 percentage points down on two years earlier, with Iata reporting: “Asia Pacific carriers posted their lowest loads for any month since 1990.”

International traffic improved in all other regions in November, but domestic traffic – which has until now recovered well ahead of international travel – deteriorated.

Worldwide international passenger demand improved from 35% of 2019’s level in October to almost 40% in November.

By contrast, domestic air travel fell from 79% of the 2019 level in October to 75% in November due to the decline in China where traffic fell to half (51%) of that in 2019 after several cities introduced stricter travel restrictions to contain Covid outbreaks.

European airlines saw the greatest improvement in international traffic, with Iata reporting a 44% shortfall on 2019 in November compared with 49% in October.

However, European carriers’ international capacity in the month was down only 36% on 2019 meaning a fall of almost 10 percentage points in average load factor.

North American airlines’ international traffic was almost on a par with Europe at 45% down on 2019 and significantly better than October’s 57% figure thanks to the re-opening of the US border from November 8.

Capacity in North America was just 15% down on 2019 – the smallest decline by region. However, demand failed to keep pace leaving the average load factor down almost 12 percentage points on 2019.

US domestic traffic reached 94% of pre-pandemic levels, up from 89% in October thanks to Thanksgiving traffic.

Middle East carriers reported international demand in November 54% down on 2019, an improvement from 61% down in October, but with average load factors down almost 12 percentage points at 61% as the return of capacity outpaced passenger traffic.

African airlines’ traffic remained 57% down on 2019, an improvement from 60% down in October, with the average load factor down 10 percentage points.

Latin American airlines’ international traffic was 47% down on 2019 compared with 55% in October, but with the highest average load factor in the world at 81% – just one percentage point down on 2019.

The region has now recorded the world’s highest regional load factor for 14 consecutive months.

Iata noted “a spike in Covid cases, staff shortages and bad weather” made any significant improvement in December’s data “unlikely”.

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye warned this week: “The aviation industry will only fully recover when travel restrictions are all lifted and there is no risk that they will be reimposed at short notice.”

He suggested this is “likely to be years away”.

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