Data Confirms Scheduled Flight Decline Averages 70 Percent

 - July 20, 2020, 7:00 AM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.


Sadly, it almost goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to the aviation industry. No part of it, so far, has been more damaged than the airline sector. On a rolling basis as the virus spread around the globe from March, airlines were either completely grounded by government lockdowns or saw demand collapse due to an unwillingness or inability of passengers to make trips.

After at least 12 months of misery, July has brought some signs of a tentative uptick in traffic as some restrictions have lifted. But the picture is far from uniform, and, as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail.

To try to provide a snapshot of how flight activity has fluctuated in the face of Covid headwinds, AIN asked air traffic data specialist Spire Aviation to analyze activity at seven international airports in North America, Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Australasia. The company tracks individual aircraft via its own constellation of 88 satellites. It generated data showing all flights in and out each of the following airports on a series of three Wednesdays over the past 12 months (July 10, 2019, February 12, 2020 and July 8, 2020): Chicago O’Hare (ORD) in the U.S., Germany’s Frankfurt Main International (FRA), Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International (JNB) in South Africa, Brazil’s São Paulo Guarulhos (GRU), Dubai International (DXB) in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore Changi (SIN), and Sydney (SYD) in Australia.

Spire’s data shows two key elements—the total number of unique aircraft tails (including multiple trips in and out of the same airport on the day in question) and the total number of scheduled flights.

Comparing the average volume of scheduled flights across the seven airports on July 8, 2020, reveals a decline of 67 percent compared with July 10, 2019, and 70 percent compared with February 12, 2020. Making the same comparison for total aircraft shows average reductions of 50 percent compared with July 10, 2019, and 54 percent compared with February 12, 2020.

Johannesburg recorded the largest dip in scheduled flights, at 85 and 86 percent down compared with the respective dates. Total aircraft fell 62 percent compared with February 12, 2020, 55 percent from July 10, 2019. The numbers would appear to reflect the fact that the Covid outbreak took longer to reach South Africa but has increased markedly in recent weeks.

In Singapore, scheduled flights saw declines of 81 and 80 percent for the dates in question, while total aircraft numbers were 57 and 60 percent lower. The Southeast Asian city-state felt the virus's effects far earlier than did Europe and the Americas.

Sydney, Australia, saw a similar decline in scheduled flights of 82 and 81 percent, but with total aircraft numbers down by 45 and 54 percent. Like its neighbor New Zealand, Australia has sought to maintain a protective bubble by effectively barring all international flights to and from the country. However, given the large size of its territory, Australia, like the U.S., has seen domestic traffic sustained to a degree.

In Dubai, one of the world’s fastest-growing airline hubs over the past two decades, scheduled flights were down by 73 and 74 percent, respectively. Total aircraft numbers dropped by 62 and 64 percent.

In Germany, which like the whole of Europe experienced tough lockdown restrictions that barred all but the most essential travel, scheduled flights in and out of Frankfurt were down by 64 percent for both sets of dates. Aircraft numbers declined by 55 and 51 percent.

Over the past few weeks Brazil, along with other parts of South America, has emerged as a serious Covid hotspot. Scheduled flights at São Paulo’s main airport were down by 69 and 76 percent, while aircraft numbers dipped by 53 and 61 percent.

Significantly, Chicago’s numbers bucked the trend in a country that was relatively slow to lockdown and has sought to lift restrictions at the earliest opportunity, apparently resulting in an uptick in infection rates in several states. Scheduled flights only declined by 17 and 31 percent on the dates tracked by Spire for AIN, while aircraft numbers were down by 21 and 24 percent.

On the charts presented here, the darker colored shading indicates flights at higher altitudes, while lighter shading indicates lower altitude movements. Colored lines indicate multiple aircraft arriving, departing, or in a holding pattern. White lines demarcate runways at the various airports.

Spire Aviation is part of the Spire Global group, which is part of the Spacetech company based in San Francisco. Based on its own satellite constellation, it identifies, tracks, and predicts the movement of multiple sets of resources and weather systems to support decisions by companies and governments.