2021 starts off worse than 2020 as travel restrictions bite

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Increased travel restrictions are having a crushing impact on global passenger traffic, with total demand in January 2021 – as measured in revenue passenger kilometers – down 72% compared to January 2019. The numbers are overall even more depressed than those recorded in December 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association’s latest traffic report.

“2021 is starting off worse than 2020 ended and that is saying a lot,” says IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. “Even as vaccination programs gather pace, new COVID variants are leading governments to increase travel restrictions. The uncertainty around how long these restrictions will last also has an impact on future travel. Forward bookings in February this year for the Northern Hemisphere summer travel season were 78% below levels in February 2019.”

The stringency of measures that governments have imposed on international air travel has increased in most regions since late December 2020. But controls are particularly strict in Europe and Asia-Pacific, notes IATA.

In terms of international passenger markets, Asia-Pacific airlines’ January traffic plummeted 94.6% compared to the January 2019 period (comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of the COVID-19 crisis). But this massive decline was virtually unchanged from the 94.4% decline registered for December 2020.

“The region continued to suffer from the steepest traffic declines for a seventh consecutive month. Capacity dropped 86.5% and load factor sank 49.4 percentage points to 32.6%, by far the lowest among regions,” says IATA

European carriers had an 83.2% decline in traffic in January versus January 2019, worsened from an 82.6% decline in December 2020, while North American carriers’ January 2021 traffic fell 79% compared to the 2019 period, up slightly from a 79.5% decline in December 2020.

At the end of January, the government of Canada announced measures to curb people’s movements to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially new variants. Among other measures, Canadian operators agreed to suspend all flights to and from Mexico and Caribbean countries from 31 January until 30 April 2021. The full effect of this decision will be felt in February’s numbers and beyond.

However, the deterioration in industry-wide traffic was primarily driven by domestic markets. IATA says total domestic demand was down 47.4% in January 2021 versus pre-crisis January 2019 levels, after falling 42.9% in December 2020. “This was driven by marked slumps in Asian domestic markets,” explains IATA.


The airline trade group believes that global standards to securely record COVID-19 test and vaccination data “in formats that will be internationally recognized” are urgently needed and will be critical to restarting international travel if governments continue to require verified testing or vaccination data.

To that end, IATA is working on the so-called IATA Travel Pass app, which will help travelers and governments manage digital health credentials. Several airlines, including Air New Zealand, Etihad, Emirates, and Singapore Airlines, intend to trial the solution.

For instance, Air New Zealand will test the digital Travel Pass app on its Auckland-Sydney route in April. “Once borders reopen, travel is going to look very different, with customers’ health data needing to be verified at check-in. It’s essentially like having a digital health certificate that can be easily and securely shared with airlines. This will give customers peace of mind that they meet all travel requirements for the different countries around the world before they even get to the airport,” says Air New Zealand chief digital officer Jennifer Sepull.

But according to de Juniac, the full benefit of IATA Travel Pass cannot be realized until governments agree the standards for the information they want.

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