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Passenger traffic slumps by 66.1% over travel restrictions

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Alexandre de Juniac

African airlines have recorded a slump in passenger traffic following travel restrictions imposed by countries trying to ward-off new variants of coronavirus.

Though the decline was not peculiar, the airlines recorded 66.1 per cent traffic drop in January — a modest improvement compared to a 68.8 per cent decline recorded in December, versus a year ago.

In the market statistics released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), January capacity in the African region contracted 54.2 per cent versus January 2019, and load factor fell 18.4 percentage points to 52.3 per cent.

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Globally, total demand in January 2021 was down 72.0 per cent compared to January 2019. That was worse than the 69.7 per cent year-over-year decline recorded in December 2020.

The total domestic demand was down 47.4 per cent versus pre-crisis (January 2019) levels. In December it was down 42.9 per cent on the previous year. This weakening is largely driven by stricter domestic travel controls in China over the Lunar New Year holiday period.

International passenger demand in January was 85.6 per cent below January 2019, a further drop compared to the 85.3 per cent year-to-year decline recorded in December.

IATAs Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alexandre de Juniac, said 2021 started worse than 2020 ended, and it says a lot.

“Even as vaccination programmes 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 per cent below levels in February 2019,” de Juniac said.

In regional performances, the Asia-Pacific airlines’ January traffic plummeted 94.6 per cent compared to the 2019 period, virtually unchanged from the 94.4 per cent decline registered for December 2020 compared to a year ago. The region continued to suffer from the steepest traffic declines for a seventh consecutive month. Capacity dropped 86.5 per cent and load factor sank 49.4 percentage points to 32.6 per cent, by far the lowest among regions.

European carriers had an 83.2 per cent decline in traffic in January versus January 2019, worsened from an 82.6 per cent decline in December compared to the same month in 2019. Capacity sank 73.6 per cent and load factor fell by 29.2 percentage points to 51.4 per cent.

Middle Eastern airlines saw a demand plunge of 82.3 per cent in January compared to January 2019, which was broadly unchanged from an 82.6 per cent demand drop in December versus a year ago. Capacity fell 67.6 per cent, and load factor declined 33.9 percentage points to 40.8 per cent.

North American carriers’ January traffic fell 79.0 per cent compared to the 2019 period, up slightly from a 79.5 per cent decline in December year to year. Capacity sagged 60.5 per cent, and load factor dropped 37.8 percentage points to 42.9 per cent.

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de Juniac said: “To say that 2021 has not got off to a good start is an understatement. Financial prospects for the year are worsening as governments tighten travel restrictions. We now expect the industry to burn through $75-$95 billion in cash this year, rather than turning cash positive in the fourth quarter, as previously thought. This is not something that the industry will be able to endure without additional relief measures from governments.

“Increased testing capability and vaccine distribution are the keys for governments to unlock economic activity, including travel. Governments must build and share their restart plans along with the benchmarks that will guide them. This will enable the industry to be prepared to energise the recovery without any unnecessary delay.”

Global standards to securely record test and vaccination data in formats that will be internationally recognised are urgently needed.

“These will be critical to restarting international travel if governments continue to require verified testing or vaccination data. IATA will soon launch the IATA Travel Pass to help travellers and governments manage digital health credentials. But the full benefit of IATA Travel Pass cannot be realized until governments agree with the standards for the information they want,” de Juniac said.

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