International air travel may not return to normal until 2023: report

May 20 2020, 11:31 am

Air travel may not recover as quickly as we would like, according to recent analysis shared by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which outlines that the damage incurred by the COVID-19 global pandemic may extend to 2023. Long-haul travel in particular is likely to be the most significantly impacted.

In a report published by IATA, the organization anticipates that the recovery of the travel industry will be led by domestic endeavours to begin with, with passenger numbers not climbing back to their normal state until at least 2023.

“Global GDP growth is expected to fall by around 5% this year, before rebounding and returning to its 2019 level in 2021,” the report explains. “To put this decline into context, it is around 4x larger than that of the global financial crisis, where world GDP fell by 1.3% in 2009.”

To place this in a travel-oriented context, the anticipated decrease in the volume of air passengers (measured by Revenue Passenger Kilometres – RPKs) is substantially more severe, with a decline of roughly 50% this year.

To simplify, an RPK is an airline industry measurement that determines the number of kilometres travelled by paying passengers.

“The recovery is such that a return to the level of 2019 does not occur until 2023, taking around two years longer than global GDP,” the report states.

It continues that there are several reasons why RPKs are likely to take longer to recover in the broader scope of the global economy. At the forefront, consumer confidence in air travel remains one of the most significant factors.

Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it will likely take time for customers to feel comfortable travelling again, even as governments continue to lift border lockdowns and other health and safety measures.

As well, following a lockdown in the second quarter of the fiscal year, IATA anticipates domestic and short-haul air travel markets to begin recovery over the course of Q3. However, long-haul markets will take more time to recover.

“Domestic RPKs are expected to decline by around 40% this year, while
international RPKs are likely to decline by around 60%,” the report explains. “As a consequence, we expect the average trip length will decline sharply this year, by around 8.5%, before gradually recovering thereafter.”

Of course, some variables may change, and there is undoubtedly a level of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the anticipated recovery metrics and predictions in terms of economic activity and the volume of passengers utilizing air transport.

“The impacts of the crisis on long-haul travel will be much more severe and of a longer duration than what is expected in domestic markets,” Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of IATA, said in a press release.

“This makes globally agreed and implemented biosecurity standards for the travel process all the more critical. We have a small window to avoid the consequences of uncoordinated unilateral measures that marked the post-9.11 period. We must act fast.”

de Juniac continues that quarantine measures upon arrival in different countries will further facilitate distrust and shaky confidence that passengers feel regarding air travel. In a recent survey conducted by IATA, according to the press release, 69% of travellers disclosed that they would not consider travelling if it meant that they would have to quarantine for 14-days once they arrived.

“To protect aviation’s ability to be a catalyst for the economic recovery, we must not make that prognosis worse by making travel impracticable with quarantine measures,” de Juniac stated.

“We need a solution for safe travel that addresses two challenges. It must give passengers confidence to travel safely and without undue hassle. And it must give governments confidence that they are protected from importing the virus.”

According to de Juniac, IATA proposes a stacking of temporary non-quarantine protocols until a vaccine is developed as well as “immunity passports” or “nearly instant” coronavirus testing available at scale.

The organization believes that a universal “risk-based layered approach” will be crucial for the recovery and reopening of the air travel industry. Measures included in this approach would consist of preventing travel for those who present coronavirus-related symptoms by issuing temperature screenings and other procedures. It would also address the hazards surrounding asymptomatic travellers by having governments institute a “robust system of health declarations and vigorous contact tracing.”

Overall, IATA’s data shows that challenging times remain ahead for the travel industry with a multitude of factors at the industry as well as global governmental levels that will likely extend beyond this immediate crisis period.