Industries in Depth

How commercial flights in Europe are edging closer to pre-pandemic levels

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In August 2019, total EU commercial flights numbered 695,912. Image: Unsplash/ Artturi Jalli

Victoria Masterson
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  • Flights carrying passengers, freight and mail in the European Union grew 25% between August 2021 and August 2022, Eurostat says.
  • There were almost 597,000 commercial flights in August 2022, 14% below pre-pandemic levels in August 2019.
  • The travel and tourism industry lost $4.5 trillion in output in 2020 and must put resilience and sustainability at the heart of its recovery, the World Economic Forum says.

Flights in Europe are taking off again – though they’re not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, new data shows.

Commercial flights – defined as flights carrying passengers, freight and mail – grew 25% between August 2021 and August 2022, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office.

The gap is “slowly closing” on flight numbers before COVID-19 levels, Eurostat says.

EU flight numbers are rising

In August 2019, total EU commercial flights numbered 695,912. The August 2022 total of 596,930 commercial flights is 14% lower than this, but still a big improvement on 2020 and 2021, when commercial flights in the EU fell 53% and 31% respectively on pre-pandemic levels, the data shows.

Greece and Luxembourg were the only two EU countries to increase commercial flights in August 2022 compared to August 2019, by 5% and 2% respectively. Slovenia, Latvia and Finland saw the biggest fall in commercial flights over the same period of -42%, -39% and -31% respectively.

Some airports in the EU saw big gains and losses in commercial flight numbers. Among these, the Greek island airport of Santorini enjoyed a 30% uplift in flights, while commercial flights to Milan’s Malpensa airport in Italy fell by 34%.

A graphic showing commercial flights, August 2022 compared with August 2019.
Commercial flights in the EU in August 2022 were 25% up on August 2021. Image: Eurostat.

Travel and tourism must become more resilient

In its Travel & Tourism Development Index 2021, the World Economic Forum describes COVID-19 as the worst crisis in modern times for the travel and tourism sector globally.

In 2020 alone, lockdowns, travel restrictions, consumer fears and slumping economies saw the travel and tourism industry lose $4.5 trillion in output and 62 million jobs.

As the industry recovers, it must be more sustainable and resilient to future shocks, the Forum says.

The Index ranks 117 countries on factors that underpin the industry’s resilience and sustainability – and finds that high-income economies in Europe and Asia score the highest.

Six European countries are in the top 10 of the Index – Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Italy.

The Index compares data on 17 measures, including the business environment, technology readiness, air transport infrastructure and environmental sustainability.

Travel recovery is an opportunity

Europe had the highest number of international tourist arrivals globally in 2021, at more than 288 million, according to data specialists Statista. This is down from a peak of 745 million in 2019, but up by around 21% from 238 million international visitors in 2020.

Lauren Uppink, Head of Aviation, Travel and Tourism at the Forum, said the recovery of aviation from its pandemic lows was good news, but that big surges in passenger numbers had presented its own challenges.

“The swift return in demand has had its challenges as airports and airlines continue to rebuild staffing levels after the pandemic,” Uppink said. “As the recovery continues, there’s a huge opportunity for the travel and tourism industry to be more resilient to future potential shocks as it learns from challenges like these to build back better.”


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