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How The Pandemic Impacted Air Passenger Traffic in 2020

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This year was overwhelmingly unfavorable to the travel industry and travelers alike. The inception of a global pandemic saw the closing of international borders and governments warning the public to avoid travel.

Just how severely was travel impacted, how did this year compare to years past and how far exactly did the pandemic set back the travel industry? 

Global aviation data firm, Cirium, recently published a report highlighting key data and information to demonstrate the precise impact of COVID-19 on global travel in 2020. 

How Travel was Affected

The report finds that 2020 saw the end of global traveler traffic growth after 21 years, as the last time passenger levels were this low was 1999. On a year-over-year basis, travel traffic was down by 67% from 2019. 

Due to the decline in traveler demand, airlines were forced to drastically reduce flights. The report finds that airlines cut scheduled flights by nearly half in 2020 to 16.8 million flights, compared with 33.2 million in 2019.

For perspective, the highest travel day in 2020 was January 3rd (pre-pandemic) in which 95,000 scheduled passenger flights took off globally. Post-pandemic on April 25th, 13,600 flights took off, marking an 86% reduction in flights. 

Cirium Global Flight 2020 Report

Source: Cirium, December 21 2020

International Travel Hit Hardest

Of the total 16.8 million flights flown this year, the majority of them were domestic. 13 million (77%) of the total passenger flights which took of this year were domestic, compared to 3.8 million (23%) international.

On a year-over-year basis, domestic travel fell by 40% from 2019 levels, while international travel saw a 68% drop from the year prior.

Southwest Airlines was the leading airline operator globally in 2020, with over 869,000 passenger flights flown.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was the busiest airport globally with 250,000 flights tracked.

Passengers wear masks at airport

Less Delays in 2020

If there is any semblance of a silver lining for travel in 2020, it is the on-time performance of airlines. Cirium measured the on-time performance of airlines to assess how well they achieve on-time arrival and circumvent delays.    

On average in 2019, Cirium reported only 10% of the top 300 airline carriers to attain a score of 90 or higher in on-time arrival. Since the emergence of the pandemic, this number has increased to 60% of airlines performing immaculately in on-time arrival. 

The decline in traveler demand and flights is acknowledged to be the driving force of the increase in on-time efficiency, as airspace and airport congestion is often a root cause for delays.

Key Trends for 2021

Given the data obtained for 2020, Cirium has forecasted seven key trends for the travel industry in 2021:

1. Consolidation of Airlines: 40 commercial airlines have ceased or suspended operations this year due to evaporation of cash flow. This is expected to continue and result in the acquisition or merger of some small and medium sized carriers.

COVID-19 sign plane airport

2. New Generation Aircraft in Service: New aircrafts with innovative technology are expected to hit the skies in 2021, effectively reducing fuel costs and reducing environmental impact.   

3. Aircraft Retirements and Reconfiguration: Given the addition of new aircraft, older aircrafts like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 are expected to retire sooner than expected.

4. A New Way to Forecast Demand: The pandemic has altered traveler behavior and traditional methods to forecast demand may now be less effective. Online searches, price comparison sales data and social media activity are likely to become primary indicators for forecasting demand. 

5. Airline Operational Flexibility: Travelers are shortening their planning time for travel, as the traditional six-to-eight month flight scheduling window was shortened to six-to-eight weeks this year. Consequently, airlines will have to schedule flight operations and demand pricing in accordance with traveler scheduling.

covid19 travel pass app

6. Digital Traveler Experience: New technologies and artificial intelligence is expected to be implemented by airlines to enhance the experience of flying. Real-time travel information and flight alerts is also expected to be widely common going forward. 

7. The Rise of Aircraft Leasing: Due to the susceptible state of many airlines and scarcity in cash flow, leasing of aircrafts is expected to rise, with leasing companies projected to control ownership of over half the global fleet.  

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