Industries in Depth

Aviation industry suffers 'worst year in history' as COVID-19 grounds international travel

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked at Boeing facilities at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, U.S. November 17, 2020.

International passenger demand dropped 75.6% and domestic demand fell 48.8 percent below 2019 levels. Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

Felix Richter
Data Journalist, Statista
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  • COVID-19 has grounded international travel as governments act to manage and contain the spread of coronavirus.
  • The IATA has said that global passenger traffic, as measured in revenue passenger kilometers declined by 65.9%, compared to 2019.
  • In a worst-case scenario, with new strains of COVID-19 emerging, recovery could be limited to just 13% above 2020 levels.

As international travel came to a near complete standstill in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the aviation industry suffered what it describes as “the worst year in history for air travel demand”. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global passenger traffic as measured in revenue passenger kilometers declined by 65.9 percent compared to 2019, as international passenger demand dropped 75.6 percent and domestic demand fell 48.8 percent below 2019 levels.

“Last year was a catastrophe. There is no other way to describe it. What recovery there was over the Northern hemisphere summer season stalled in autumn and the situation turned dramatically worse over the year-end holiday season, as more severe travel restrictions were imposed in the face of new outbreaks and new strains of COVID-19.” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

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To make things worse, there’s no real end in sight to the unprecedented crisis. With severe limitations to international travel still in place in early February, the IATA expects 2021 to be another down year for battered passenger airlines. “The world is more locked down today than at virtually any point in the past 12 months and passengers face a bewildering array of rapidly changing and globally uncoordinated travel restrictions,” de Juniac said, while urging governments to help the industry stay afloat.

As the following chart shows, the IATA predicts air travel demand to reach just 50 percent of 2019 levels in 2021, even in its more optimistic scenario. If the new strains of the virus continue to take hold, things could be even worse and recovery could be limited to just 13 percent above 2020 levels, leaving the industry at 38 percent of 2019 passenger demand.

Pandemic causes historic decline in air passenger traffic
The IATA predicts air travel demand to reach just 50% of 2019 levels in 2021 Image: Statista
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