IATA: Airline Industry Statistics confirm 2020 was the worse year on record

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 that year of the COVID-19 crisis.

  • 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 (RPKs) decreased by 75.6% compared to the year prior
  • Domestic air passenger demand (RPKs) dropped by 48.8% compared to 2019
  • 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
  • The decline in air passengers transported in 2020 was the largest recorded since global RPKs started being tracked around 1950

“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.


Key 2020 airline performance figures from WATS

Passenger

  • Systemwide, airlines carried 1.8 billion passengers on scheduled services, a decrease of 60.2% over 2019
  • On average, there was a $71.7 loss incurred per passenger in 2020, corresponding to net losses of $126.4 billion in total
  • Measured in ASKs (available seat kilometers), global airline capacity plummeted by 56.7%, with international capacity being hit the hardest with a reduction of 68.3%
  • Systemwide passenger load factor dropped to 65.1% in 2020, compared to 82.5% the year prior
  • The Middle East region suffered the largest proportion of loss for passenger traffic* with a drop of 71.5% in RPKs versus 2019, followed by Europe (-69.7%) and the Africa region (-68.5%)
  • China became the largest domestic market in 2020 for the first time on record, as air travel rebounded faster in their domestic market following their efforts to control COVID-19
  • The regional rankings (based on total passengers carried on scheduled services by airlines registered in that region) are:
  1. Asia-Pacific: 780.7 million passengers, a decrease of 53.4% compared to the region’s passengers in 2019
  2. North America: 401.7 million passengers, down 60.8% over 2019
  3. Europe: 389.9 million passengers, down 67.4% over 2019
  4. Latin America: 123.6 million passengers, down 60.6% over 2019
  5. Middle East: 8 million passengers, a decrease of 67.6% over 2019
  6. Africa: 34.3 million passengers, down 65.7% over 2019
  • The top five airlines ranked by total scheduled passenger kilometers flown, were:
  1. American Airlines (124 billion)
  2. China Southern Airlines (110.7 billion)
  3. Delta Air Lines (106.5 billion)
  4. United Airlines (100.2 billion)
  5. China Eastern Airlines (88.7 billion)
  • The top five route areas** by passenger demand (RPKs), with the largest drop being seen in routes within the Far East:
  1. Within Europe (290.3 million, down 70.7% from 2019)
  2. Europe – North America (122.9 million, decreased 80.4% from 2019)
  3. Within Far East (117.3 million, a decrease of 84.1% from 2019)
  4. Europe – Far East (115.3 million, a decrease of 79% from 2019)
  5. Middle East – Far East (104 million, down 73.6% from 2019)
  • The top five domestic passenger airport-pairs were all in Asia and outperformed top international routes as domestic recovery returned faster, particularly in China:
  1. Jeju – Seoul Gimpo (10.2 million, up 35.1% over 2019)
  2. Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City (5.9 million, an increase of 54.3% from 2019)
  3. Shanghai-Hongqiao – Shenzhen (3.7 million, up 43.4% from 2019)
  4. Beijing-Capital – Shanghai-Hongqiao (3.6 million, increased by 11.8% from 2019)
  5. Guangzhou – Shanghai-Hongqiao (3.5 million, up 41.2% from 2019)
  • The top five nationalities*** traveling by air (international) were:
  1. United States (45.7 million, or 9.7% of all passengers)
  2. United Kingdom (40.8 million, or 8.6% of all passengers)
  3. Germany (30.8 million, or 6.5% of all passengers)
  4. France (23.3 million, or 4.9% of all passengers)
  5. India (17.4 million, or 3.7% of all passengers)

Cargo

  • 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 (ACTKs) fell 21.4% year-on-year in 2020
  • 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 (CTKs) had returned close to pre-crisis values. However, the yearly decline in cargo demand (CTKs) was still the largest since the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, at a sizeable 9.7% year-on-year in 2020.
  • The top five airlines ranked by scheduled cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs) flown were:
    1. Federal Express (19.7 billion)
    2. United Parcel Service (14.4 billion)
    3. Qatar Airways (13.7 billion)
    4. Emirates (9.6 billion)
    5. Cathay Pacific Airways (8.1 billion)

Airline Alliances

  • Star Alliance maintained its position as the largest airline alliance in 2020 with 18.7% of total scheduled traffic (in RPKs), followed by SkyTeam (16.3%) and oneworld (12.7%)

In other news, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced passenger demand performance for June 2021 showing a very slight improvement in both international and domestic air travel markets. Demand remains significantly below pre-COVID-19 levels owing to international travel restrictions.

As comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of COVID-19, unless otherwise noted, all comparisons are to June 2019, which followed a normal demand pattern.

  • Total demand for air travel in June 2021 (measured in revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) was down 60.1% compared to June 2019. That was a small improvement over the 62.9% decline recorded in May 2021 versus May 2019.
  • International passenger demand in June was 80.9% below June 2019, an improvement from the 85.4% decline recorded in May 2021 versus two years ago. All regions with the exception of Asia-Pacific contributed to the slightly higher demand.
  • Total domestic demand was down 22.4% versus pre-crisis levels (June 2019), a slight gain over the 23.7% decline recorded in May 2021 versus the 2019 period. The performance across key domestic markets was mixed with Russia reporting robust expansion while China returned to negative territory.

“We are seeing movement in the right direction, particularly in some key domestic markets. But the situation for international travel is nowhere near where we need to be. June should be the start of peak season, but airlines were carrying just 20% of 2019 levels. That’s not a recovery, it’s a continuing crisis caused by government inaction,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

International Passenger Markets

JUNE 2021
(% VS JUNE 2019)
WORLD SHARE​1 RPK ASK PLF (%-PT)​2 PLF (LEVEL)​3
Total Market
100.0%
-60.1%
-51.6%
-14.8%
69.6%
Africa
1.9%
-66.6%
-59.5%
-12.4%
58.7%
Asia Pacific
38.6%
-65.6%
-56.9%
-16.6%
65.7%
Europe
23.7%
-69.2%
-59.1%
-21.6%
65.8%
Latin America
5.7%
-50.2%
-47.1%
-4.8%
78.4%
Middle East
7.4%
-77.7%
-62.9%
-30.5%
45.9%
North America
22.7%
-36.2%
-29.6%
-8.3%
80.6%

1) % of industry RPKs in 2020    2) Change in load factor vs. the same month in 2019    3) Load Factor Level

Asia-Pacific airlines’ June international traffic fell 94.6% compared to June 2019, unchanged from the 94.5% decline in May 2021 versus May 2019. The region had the steepest traffic declines for an eleventh consecutive month. Capacity dropped 86.7% and the load factor was down 48.3 percentage points to 33.1%, the lowest among regions.

European carriers saw their June international traffic decline 77.4% versus June 2019, a gain from the 85.5% decrease in May compared to the same month in 2019. Capacity declined 67.3% and load factor fell 27.1 percentage points to 60.7%.

Middle Eastern airlines posted a 79.4% demand drop in June compared to June 2019, improving from the 81.3% decrease in May, versus the same month in 2019. Capacity declined 65.3% and load factor deteriorated 31.1 percentage points to 45.3%.

North American carriers’ June demand fell 69.6% compared to the 2019 period, improving from the 74.2% decline in May versus two years ago. Capacity sank 57.3%, and load factor dipped 25.3 percentage points to 62.6%.

Latin American airlines saw a 69.4% drop in June traffic compared to the same month in 2019, improved over the 75.3% decline in May compared to May 2019. June capacity fell 64.6% and load factor dropped 11.3 percentage points to 72.7%, which was the highest load factor among the regions for the ninth consecutive month.

African airlines’ traffic fell 68.2% in June versus the same month two years ago, an improvement from the 71.5% decline in May compared to May 2019. June capacity contracted 60.0% versus June 2019, and load factor declined 14.5 percentage points to 56.5%.

Domestic Passenger Markets

JUNE 2021
(%VS JUNE 2019)
WORLD SHARE1​​ RPK ASK PLF (%-PT)​2 PLF (LEVEL)​3
Domestic
54.3%
-22.4%
-15.5%
-6.9%
78.8%
Dom. Australia
0.7%
-40.7%
-28.5%
-13.3%
65.0%
Dom. Brazil
1.6%
-31.1%
-30.4%
-0.9%
80.9%
Dom. China P.R.
19.9%
-10.8%
-0.8%
-8.6%
76.2%
Dom India
2.1%
-70.8%
-59.1%
-25.8%
63.8%
Dom. Japan
1.5%
-67.6%
-45.1%
-29.2%
42.0%
Dom. Russian Fed.
3.4%
33.0%
39.4%
-4.0%
81.3%
Dom. US
16.6%
-14.9%
-11.2%
-3.8%
85.9%

1) % of industry RPKs in 2020    2) Change in load factor vs. the same month in 2019    3) Load Factor Level

China’s domestic traffic returned to negative territory in June, declining 10.8% compared to June 2019, following a 6.3% growth in May versus the same period in 2019. New restrictions had been introduced following a COVID-19 outbreak in several Chinese cities.

US domestic traffic improved from a 25.4% decline in May versus the same month in 2019, to a 14.9% decline in June. Life in the US was starting to see some normalcy following the easing of measures and the rapid rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination.

The Bottom Line

“With each passing day the hope of seeing a significant revival in international traffic during the Northern Hemisphere summer grows fainter. Many governments are not following the data or the science to restore the basic freedom of movement. Despite growing numbers of vaccinated people and improved testing capacity we are very close to losing another peak summer season on the important trans-Atlantic market. And the UK’s flip-flop to reinstate quarantine for vaccinated arrivals from France is the kind of policy development that destroys consumer confidence when it is most needed,” said Walsh.

“A risk-managed re-connecting of the world is what we need. Vaccinated travelers should have their freedom of movement returned. An efficient testing regime can sufficiently manage risks for those unable to be vaccinated. This is the underlying message in the latest WHO travel guidance. The UK, Singapore and Canada have indicated timelines to open their borders without quarantine for vaccinated travelers. The European Commission has recommended that its member states adopt travel protocols that are closely aligned with the WHO—including testing for unvaccinated travelers. Similar moves to re-open borders in line with the WHO guidance by US—leaders in vaccinating their populations—would give critical impetus to demonstrating that we can live and travel while managing the risks of COVID-19,” said Walsh.

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