December 4, 2022

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IATA says international travel drives May air traffic recovery

Countries like Singapore are reopening and trying to lure tourists and business travellers. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

Use this oneThe International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced passenger data for May 2022 showing that the recovery in air travel accelerated heading into the busy Northern Hemisphere summer travel season.

Total traffic in May 2022 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was up 83.1 percent compared to May 2021, largely driven by the strong recovery in international traffic. Global traffic is now at 68.7 percent of pre-crisis levels. Domestic traffic for May 2022 was up 0.2 percent compared to the year-ago period.  Significant improvements in many markets were masked by a 73.2 percent year-on-year decline in the Chinese domestic market due to COVID-19 related restrictions. May 2022 domestic traffic was 76.7 percent of May 2019. International traffic rose 325.8 percent versus May 2021. The easing of travel restrictions in most parts of Asia is accelerating the recovery of international travel. May 2022 international RPKs reached 64.1 percent of May 2019 levels.

IATA Director General Willie Walsh at the 2021 annual general meeting in Boston. (PHOTO: IATA)

“The travel recovery continues to gather momentum. People need to travel. And when governments remove COVID-19 restrictions, they do,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general. Many major international route areas – including within Europe, and the Middle East-North America routes – are already exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels. Completely removing all COVID-19 restrictions is the way forward, with Australia being the latest to do so this week. The major exception to the optimism of this rebound in travel is China, which saw a dramatic 73.2 percent fall in domestic travel compared to the previous year. Its continuing zero-COVID policy is out-of-step with the rest of the world and it shows in the dramatically slower recovery of China-related travel.”

International passenger markets

Hamad International Airport. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)
  • European carriers’ May traffic rose 412.3 percent versus May 2021. Capacity rose 221.3 percent, and load factor climbed 30.1 percentage points to 80.6 percent. The impact of the war in Ukraine remained limited to areas directly impacted.
  • Asia-Pacific airlines had a 453.3 percent rise in May traffic compared to May 2021. This is significantly higher than the 295.3 percent year-on-year gain registered in April 2022. Capacity rose 118.8 percent and the load factor was up 43.6 percentage points to 72.1 percent. Improvements in the region are being driven by reduced restrictions in most of the region’s markets, except China.
  • Middle Eastern airlines’ traffic rose 317.2 percent in May compared to May 2021. May capacity rose 115.7 percent versus the year-ago period, and load factor climbed 37.1 percentage points to 76.8 percent. The progressive re-opening of Asian markets is boosting traffic through Gulf hubs.
  • North American carriers experienced a 203.4 percent traffic rise in May versus the 2021 period. Capacity rose 101.1 percent, and load factor climbed 27.1 percentage points to 80.3 percent. With most restrictions removed for travelers from this region, tourism and a high willingness to travel continue to foster the international recovery as several other routes areas are now outperforming 2019 results.
  • Latin American airlines’ May traffic rose 180.5 percent compared to the same month in 2021. May capacity rose 135.3 percent and load factor increased 13.5 percentage points to 83.4 percent, which was the highest load factor among the regions for the 20th consecutive month. Some routes, including those from Central America to Europe and to North America, are outperforming 2019 levels.
  • African airlines had a 134.9 percent rise in May RPKs versus a year ago. May 2022 capacity was up 78.5 percent and load factor climbed 16.4 percentage points to 68.4 percent, the lowest among regions.

Domestic Passenger Markets

India’s domestic RPKs rose 405.7 percent year-on-year in May, compared to the 78.6 percent increase recorded in April. In May 2021, India had experienced the country’s most severe COVID-19 outbreak. US domestic traffic was up 26.1 percent in May, compared to May 2021.

The strong results in most international and domestic markets compared to a year ago is helping passenger demand catch-up to 2019 levels. Total RPKs in May 2022 reached 68.7 percent of May 2019 levels, which was the best performance against pre-COVID-19 travel so far this year.

“The recovery in travel markets is no less than impressive,” Walsh said. “As we accelerate towards the peak summer season in the Northern Hemisphere, strains in the system are appearing in some European and North American hubs. Nobody wants to see passengers suffering from delays or cancellations. But passengers can be confident that solutions are being urgently implemented. Airlines, airports and governments are working together, however, standing up the workforce needed to meet growing demand will take time and require patience in the few locations where the bottlenecks are the most severe.

“In the longer term, governments must improve their understanding of how aviation operates and work more closely with airports and airlines. Having created so much uncertainty with knee-jerk COVID-19 policy flipflops and avoiding most opportunities to work in unison based on global standards, their actions did little to enable a smooth ramping-up of activity. And it is unacceptable that the industry is now facing a potential punitive regulatory deluge as several governments fill their post-COVID-19 regulatory calendars. Aviation has delivered its best when governments and industry work together to agree and implement global standards. That axiom is as true post-COVID-19 as it was in the century before,” said Walsh.

May air cargo helped by easing of China restrictions

(PHOTO: Cathay Pacific Cargo)

IATA also released May 2022 data for global air cargo markets showing that the easing of Omicron restrictions in China helped to alleviate supply chain constraints and contributed a performance improvement in May.

Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs), was 8.3 percent below May 2021 levels (-8.1 percent for international operations). This was an improvement on the year-on-year decline of 9.1 percent seen in April. Capacity was 2.7 percent above May 2021 (+5.7 percent for international operations). This more than offset the 0.7 percent year-on-year drop in April. Capacity expanded in all regions with Asia-Pacific experiencing the largest growth.

Air cargo performance is being impacted by several factors. Trade activity ramped-up slightly in May as lockdowns in China due to Omicron were eased. Emerging regions also contributed to growth with stronger volumes. New export orders, a leading indicator of cargo demand and world trade, decreased in all markets, except China. The war in Ukraine continues to impair cargo capacity used to serve Europe as several airlines based in Russia and Ukraine were key cargo players.

“May offered positive news for air cargo, most notably because of the easing of some Omicron restrictions in China. On a seasonally adjusted basis, we saw growth (0.3 percent) after two months of decline. The return of Asian production as COVID-19 measures eased, particularly in China, will support demand for air cargo. And the strong rebound in passenger traffic has increased belly capacity, although not always in the markets where the capacity crunch is most critical. But uncertainty in the overall economic situation will need to be carefully watched,” said Walsh.

May regional performance

Airlines around the world are leaning on cargo operations to keep planes flying. (PHOTO: Korean Air)
  • Asia-Pacific airlines saw their air cargo volumes decrease by 6.6 percent in May 2022 compared to the same month in 2021. This was a significant improvement over the 15.8 percent decline in April. Airlines in the region have been heavily impacted by lower trade and manufacturing activity due to Omicron-related lockdowns in China however this started to ease in May as restrictions were lifted. Available capacity in the region fell 7.4 percent compared to May 2021.
  • North American carriers posted a 5.7 percent decrease in cargo volumes in May 2022 compared to May 2021. Demand in the Asia-North America market remained subdued, however, other key routes such as Europe – North America remain strong. Capacity was up 6.8 percent compared to May 2021. Several carriers in the region are set to receive delivery of freighters this year, which should help address pent-up demand on routes where it is needed if economic headwinds don’t persist.
  • European carriers saw a 14.6 percent decrease in cargo volumes in May 2022 compared to the same month in 2021. This was the worst performance of all regions. This is attributable to the war in Ukraine. Labour shortages and lower manufacturing activity in Asia due to Omicron also affected volumes. Capacity increased 3.3 percent in May 2022 compared to May 2021.
  • Middle Eastern carriers experienced a 11.6 percent year-on-year decrease in cargo volumes in May. Significant benefits from traffic being redirected to avoid flying over Russia failed to materialize. This is likely due to persisting supply chain issues in Asia. Capacity was up 7.6 percent compared to May 2021.
  • Latin American carriers reported an increase of 13.8 percent in cargo volumes in May 2022 compared to May 2021. This was the strongest performance of all regions. Airlines in this region have shown optimism by introducing new services and capacity, and in some cases investing in additional aircraft for air cargo in the coming months.  Capacity in May was up 33.3 percent compared to the same month in 2021.
  • African airlines saw cargo volumes decrease by 1.5 percent in May 2022 compared to May 2021. This was significantly slower than the growth recorded the previous month (6.3 percent). Capacity was 3.0 percent above May 2021 levels.

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