Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, last year marked the largest recorded decline in airline passengers transported since the International Air Transport Association (IATA) began tracking global revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs) in the 1950s, according to the IATA World Air Transport Statistics (WATS) report released late on August 3. Overall, airlines flew 1.8 billion passengers last year, down 60.2 percent from 2019, while RPKs fell 69.5 percent year-over-year (YOY).
In the face of global travel restrictions, international RPKs plummeted 75.6 percent last year as countries closed their borders, while domestic RPKs fell 48.8 percent over the same comparable period. Meanwhile, industry passenger revenues declined last year by 69 percent, to $189 billion, and net airline losses totaled $126.4 billion.
Measured in available seat kilometers (ASKs), global airline capacity decreased by 56.7 percent, with international capacity being hit the hardest, declining by 68.3 percent. Systemwide passenger load factor dropped to 65.1 percent last year, compared with 82.5 percent in 2019.
By world region, the Middle East region suffered the largest loss in passengers carried, falling 67.6 percent YOY, to 76.8 million passengers. This was followed by Europe (389.9 million passengers, -67.4 percent), Africa (34.3 million passengers, -65.7 percent), North America (401.7 million passengers, -60.8 percent), and Latin America (123.6 million passengers, -60.6 percent). Notably, China became the largest domestic market for the first time ever—at 780.7 million passengers, a YOY decrease of 53.4 percent—as air travel rebounded faster last year following its efforts to control Covid-19.
Just this week, Chinese authorities imposed new travel restrictions, including extensive flight cancellations, in an effort to contain a surge in infections from the latest Delta variant of the Covid virus. All domestic flights were canceled out of the cities of Nanjing and Yangzhou. Authorities said that the flare-up in infections was in part traced to contact between airport workers and passengers at Nanjing Lukhou International Airport.
Last year, the top five airlines ranked by total scheduled passenger-kilometers flown were American Airlines (124 billion), China Southern Airlines (110.7 billion), Delta Air Lines (106.5 billion), United Airlines, (100.2 billion), and China Eastern Airlines (88.7 billion).
Cargo, however, was a bright spot for the industry as the market adapted to keep pandemic-related goods moving—including vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE), and vital medical supplies—despite the massive drop in capacity cargo holds of passenger aircraft. Available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs) fell 21.4 YOY, creating a capacity crunch that increased cargo load factor by 7 points, to 53.8 percent—the highest since IATA started tracking this metric in 1990. By year-end 2020, cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs) had returned close to pre-crisis values. However, the 9.7 percent YOY decline in CTKs last year was still the largest since the global financial crisis in 2009, IATA said.
“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,” commented IATA director general Willie Walsh, who until September 2020 was CEO of the International Airlines Group. “At the depth of the crisis in April 2020, 66 percent 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.”