Travel and Tourism

When will air travel return to pre-pandemic levels?

Aeroplane overhead

Julie R. Peasley uses data from IATA to show current and projected air passenger ridership Image: Unsplash/John McArthur

Julie Peasley
Graphic Designer and Digital Illustrator , The Particle Zoo
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  • The aviation industry suffered an estimated $370 billion loss in global revenue as a result of the pandemic, according to Statista.
  • While air travel has been slowly recovering, flight passenger traffic has yet to fully bounce back.
  • This new graphic using IATA data shows forecasted passenger number are on the up.

When Will Air Travel Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels?

Many industries were hit hard by the global pandemic, but it can be argued that air travel suffered one of the most severe blows.

The aviation industry as a whole suffered an estimated $370 billion loss in global revenue because of COVID-19. And while air travel has been slowly recovering from the trough, flight passenger traffic has yet to fully bounce back.

Where is the industry at in 2022 compared to pre-COVID times, and when is air passenger travel expected to return to regular levels? This graphic by Julie R. Peasley uses data from IATA to show current and projected air passenger ridership.

Graphic showing the current and projected air passenger ridership
Passenger numbers are expected to rise over the next 3 years. Image: IATA, Reuters

Air Travel Traffic: 2021 and 2022

After an incredibly difficult 2020, the airline industry started to see significant improvements in travel frequency. But compared to pre-pandemic levels, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

In 2021, overall passenger numbers only reached 47% of 2019 levels. This influx was largely driven by domestic travel, with international passenger numbers only reaching 27% of pre-COVID levels.

Statistic showing the overall international passenger number in percentages compared to 2019
In 2022, overall passenger numbers reached 83% of 2019 levels. Image: Visual Capitalist

From a regional perspective, Central America experienced one of the fastest recoveries. In 2021, overall passenger numbers in the region had reached 72% of 2019 levels, and they are projected to reach 96% by the end of 2022.

In fact, the Americas as a whole has seen a quick recovery. Both North America and South America also reached above 50% of 2019 ridership in 2021, and are projected to reach 94% and 88% ridership in 2022, respectively.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Asia Pacific has experienced the slowest recovery. This is likely due to stricter lockdowns and travel restrictions put into effect in this region (which was harder hit by SARS in 2003), especially in places like Shanghai.

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Forecasting Traffic in 2023 and Beyond

While recovery has looked different from region to region, airlines are largely expected to see a full recovery to their ridership levels by 2025.

Statistic showing forecasted airline passenger numbers in percentages compared to 2019
In 2025, the forecasted passengers are predicted to reach 111% of 2019 levels Image: Visual Capitalist

This recovery is a signifier of a much broader mindset shift, as governments continue to reassess their COVID-19 management strategies.

But while the future seems promising, IATA stressed that the forecast does not take into account the potential impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other geopolitical concerns, which could have far-reaching consequences on the global economy (and travel) in the coming years.

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