Domestic and international passenger air recovery slowed in January 2022 due to new travel restrictions imposed following the emergence of the Covid-19 omicron variant, according to the International Air Transportation Association.
January total air travel demand, as measured in revenue passenger kilometers, was up 82.3 percent compared to January 2021 but down 4.9 percent compared to December 2021, on a seasonally adjusted basis, and down 49.6 percent versus January 2019. Load factor was up 10.8 percent points year over year to 64.5 percent, but that is still off by 15.2 percent points from January 2019 levels.
Domestic air travel for January was up 41.5 percent year over year, representing a 7.2 percent fall from December 2021 and a 26.5 percent decline from January 2019. January international demand rose 165.6 percent year over year but declined 2.2 percent month over month on a seasonally adjusted basis and declined 62.4 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
“The recovery in air travel continued in January, despite hitting a speed bump called omicron,” IATA director general Willie Walsh said in a statement. “Many governments are now adjusting Covid-19 policies to align with those for other endemic viruses. This includes lifting travel restrictions that have had such a devastating impact on lives, economies and the freedom to travel.”
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For regional markets, IATA has returned to detailing year-over-year traffic and capacity changes as opposed to showing the comparison with 2019 figures. Total demand in North America was up 109.7 percent year over year with capacity up 59 percent, though the domestic growth rate slowed in January. Traffic also declined 14 percent, and the market was affected by flight cancellations, staff shortages related to Covid-19 quarantines, snowstorms, and “a complicated 5G rollout.”
Europe had the highest year-over-year demand increase at 161.4 percent coupled with a 106.7 percent rise in capacity. It was followed by the Middle East, with demand up 128.1 percent and a capacity increase of 64.8 percent.
Africa and Asia-Pacific saw more muted advances. Demand and capacity in Africa were up 21.3 percent and 10.6 percent year over year, respectively. For Asia-Pacific, demand increased 19.4 percent and capacity 15.7 percent. Latin America reported demand up 80.5 percent and a capacity increase of 59.2 percent.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not happen until Feb. 24, so January’s numbers were not affected. IATA, however, anticipates the resulting sanctions and airspace closures will have a negative effect on travel. The Ukraine market accounted for 3.3 percent of European passenger traffic and 0.8 percent of global traffic in 2021, according to IATA. The Russian international market represented 5.7 percent of European traffic — excluding the Russian domestic market — and 1.3 percent of global traffic in 2021.
The airspace closures have led to rerouting or cancellations of some flights, mostly between Europe and Asia, but also between Asia and North America, but the affect has been mitigated because of “greatly diminished” flight activity since borders in Asia were largely closed due to Covid-19. Demand for Asia-North America routes accounted for 3 percent of global demand, while Asia-Europe routes accounted for 4.5 percent, according to IATA.
The spike in fuel prices also is “putting pressure” on airline costs. “When we made our most recent industry financial forecast, we expected the airline industry to lose $ 11.6 billion in 2022 with jet fuel at $ 78 per barrel and fuel accounting for 20 percent of costs,” Walsh said. “As of March 4, jet fuel is trading at over $ 140 per barrel. Absorbing such a massive hit on costs just as the industry is struggling to cut losses as it emerges from the two-year Covid-19 crisis is a huge challenge.”
Walsh added the shift by governments to ease or remove Covid-19-related travel restrictions and requirements “as the disease enters its endemic phase” should “continue and even accelerate.” He also called for the removal of mask mandates on airplanes “when they are no longer being required in shopping malls, theaters or offices,” he said. “Aircraft are equipped with highly sophisticated hospital quality filtration systems and have much higher air flow and air exchange rates than most other indoor environments where mask mandates have already been removed.”
Shortly after IATA released its January 2022 report, the US Transportation Security Administration extended its mask mandate for public transportation, including airlines, by one month to April 18.
IATA: December Air Travel Resilient Amid Omicron