European Flight Volume Collapsed to Mid-1980s Level in 2020

 - January 4, 2021, 2:28 PM

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


The Covid-19 pandemic reduced the number of flights operating through European air space last year to levels last seen in the mid-1980s, according to data released by Eurocontrol on Monday.  For the full year, European traffic was down 55 percent, to 5 million flights, compared with 11.1 million flights in 2019. Traffic volume fell across the region between 40 percent and 73 percent, with eye-catching declines in the UK, Germany, and Spain, each of which saw at least 1 million fewer flights and no less than a 56-percent decline in volume from a year earlier. Norway ended the year least affected in percentage terms due to its critical dependence on aviation connectivity; it saw traffic decline 40 percent on its 2019 flight counts.

Ryanair remained Europe’s largest airline in 2020, but it operated on average just 951 daily flights over the year versus 2,323 in 2019, resulting in a decrease of 59 percent year-on-year. Covid-19 triggered some major changes in the top 10 European operators in terms of daily flights compared with 2019. Out went Lufthansa Group’s low-cost subsidiary Eurowings and Norwegian Air Shuttle. Their places were taken by Wizz Air, thanks to a rapid restart of operations in May and a major base expansion strategy, and Pegasus Airlines on the back of strong domestic demand in Turkey, where Turkish Airlines moved from fourth in 2019 to become Europe’s second busiest airline. In terms of flights in 2020, Turkish Airlines with 626 daily positioned itself ahead of EasyJet (547), Lufthansa (513), and Air France (457). The average year-on-year decline in flights among the top 10 largest European airlines finished between minus-45 percent (Pegasus) and minus-67 percent (EasyJet).

The number of flights to and from Europe fell 59 percent, including a 60 percent drop on the North Atlantic, and down 54 percent on intra-European routes. Covid-19 altered the intra-European traffic flows and domestic flows predominated in 2020 with a notable increase in intra-Norwegian flights.  Spanish domestic flows lost the top spot to French domestic flows, while the number of intra-UK flights declined 56 percent, from 1,016 daily flights in 2019 to 445 last year. The first non-domestic flow in the top ten remained UK-Spain, despite a 70 percent drop to 234 daily flights on average.

At year-end, still half the aircraft in Europe—4,118 of 8,048 airframes—were parked.  However, that figure marked a major improvement on the height of the pandemic in April, when operators placed 87 percent of their aircraft out of service.

Eurocontrol’s baseline prediction for 2021 calls for European traffic to remain about 50 percent down on 2019 levels for the full year, albeit with an acceleration beginning in the summer based on the increased availability of Covid vaccines.