The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that both international and domestic travel demand showed marginal improvements in May 2021, compared to the prior month but traffic remained well below pre-pandemic levels, whilst cargo markets continue their strong growth trend.
Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
Recovery in international traffic in particular continued to be stymied by extensive government travel restrictions.
Because comparisons between 2021 and 2020 monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of COVID-19, unless otherwise noted all comparisons are to May 2019, which followed a normal demand pattern.
Total demand for air travel in May 2021 (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was down 62.7% compared to May 2019. That was a gain over the 65.2% decline recorded in April 2021 versus April 2019.
International passenger demand in May was 85.1% below May 2019, a small step-up from the 87.2% decline recorded in April 2021 versus two years ago. All regions with the exception of Asia-Pacific contributed to this modest improvement.
Total domestic demand was down 23.9% versus pre-crisis levels (May 2019), slightly improved over April 2021, when domestic traffic was down 25.5% versus the 2019 period. China and Russia traffic continue to be in in positive growth territory compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, while India and Japan saw significant deterioration amid new variants and outbreaks.
Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General, said: “We are starting to see positive developments, with some international markets opening to vaccinated travelers. The Northern Hemisphere summer travel season is now fully arrived. And it is disappointing that more governments are not moving more rapidly to use data to drive border opening strategies that would help revive tourism jobs and reunite families.”
International Passenger Markets
European carriers’ May international traffic declined 84.7% versus May 2019, improved from the 87.7% decrease in April compared to the same month in 2019. Capacity dropped 75.7% and load factor fell 31.3 percentage points to 52.9%.
Asia-Pacific airlines saw their May international traffic fall 94.3% compared to May 2019, fractionally worse than the 94.2% drop registered in April 2021 versus April 2019. The region experienced the steepest traffic declines for a tenth consecutive month. Capacity was down 86.4% and the load factor sank 45.5 percentage points to 33.2%, the lowest among regions.
Middle Eastern airlines experienced an 81.3% demand drop in May compared to May 2019, slightly bettering the 82.9% decrease in April, versus the same month in 2019. Capacity declined 63.7%, and load factor fell 35.3 percentage points to 37.7%.
North American carriers’ May demand fell 74.4% compared to the 2019 period, an improvement over the 77.6% decline in April versus two years ago. Capacity sagged 58.5%, and load factor dropped 32.2 percentage points to 51.7%.
Latin American airlines saw a 75.1% demand drop in May, compared to the same month in 2019, notably improved over the 80.9% decline in April compared to April 2019. May capacity was down 69.9% and load factor decreased 14.6 percentage points to 69.5%, which was the highest load factor among the regions for the eighth consecutive month.
African airlines’ traffic fell 71.4% in May versus May two years ago, a gain from the 75.6% decline in April compared to April 2019. May capacity declined 61.8% versus May 2019, and load factor dropped 16.9 percentage points to 50.2%.
Domestic Passenger Markets
India’s domestic traffic fell 71.0% in May compared to May 2019 amid the emergence of the new and more contagious “Delta” variant. This compared to a 42% decline registered in April versus the same month two years ago.
Brazil’s domestic traffic rebounded from a 60.9% decline in April versus the same month in 2019, to a 44% decline in May, as travel restrictions were eased.
“To paraphrase an old saying, when you think that all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Too many governments continue to act as if the only tool in their anti-COVID-19 arsenal is a blanket border closure or an arrival quarantine. In fact, research from leading medical organizations around the globe confirms that vaccinated travelers pose very little risk to the local population(i) while data show that pre-departure testing largely removes the risk of unvaccinated travelers importing COVID-19(ii).
“It is long past time for governments to start responding to this information with more nuanced data-driven risk-based strategies. These will minimize the chance of importing COVID-19 while allowing the world to reopen to travel and all the opportunities it brings to reconnect with loved ones, to realise business opportunities, to explore the world or take a well-deserved vacation,” said Walsh.
Global demand, measured in cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs*), was up 9.4% compared to May 2019. Seasonally adjusted demand rose by 0.4% month-on-month in May, the 13th consecutive month of improvement.
The pace of growth slowed slightly in May compared to April which saw demand increase 11.3% against pre-COVID-19 levels (April 2019). Notwithstanding, air cargo outperformed global goods trade for the fifth consecutive month.
North American carriers contributed 4.6 percentage points to the 9.4% growth rate in May. Airlines in all other regions except for Latin America also supported the growth.
Capacity remains constrained at 9.7% below pre-COVID-19 levels (May 2019) due to the ongoing grounding of passenger aircraft. Seasonally adjusted capacity rose 0.8% month-on-month in May, the fourth consecutive month of improvement indicating that the capacity crunch is slowly unwinding.
Underlying economic conditions and favourable supply chain dynamics remain supportive for air cargo:
Global trade rose 0.5% in April.
The Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs) - leading indicators of air cargo demand - show that business confidence, manufacturing output and new export orders are growing at a rapid pace in most economies.
The cost-competitiveness of air cargo relative to that of container shipping has improved. Pre-crisis, the average price of air cargo was 12 times more expensive than sea shipping. In May 2021 it was six time more expensive.
“Propelled by strong economic growth in trade and manufacturing, demand for air cargo is 9.4% above pre-crisis levels. As economies unlock, we can expect a shift in consumption from goods to services. This could slow growth for cargo in general, but improved competitiveness compared to sea shipping should continue to make air cargo a bright spot for airlines while passenger demand struggles with continued border closures and travel restrictions,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
May Regional Performance
Asia-Pacific airlines saw demand for international air cargo increase 5.3% in May 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. This was a decrease compared to the previous month (5.9%) due to a slight slowdown in growth in several large trade routes such as Within Asia. International capacity remained constrained in the region, down 16.9% versus May 2019. As was the case in April, the region’s airlines reported the highest international load factor at 75.2%.
North American carriers posted a 25.5% increase in international demand in May 2021 compared to May 2019. This was on par with April’s performance (25.4%) and the strongest of all regions. Underlying economic conditions and favorable supply chain dynamics remain supportive for air cargo carriers in North America. International capacity grew by 1.6% compared with May 2019.
European carriers posted an 5.7% increase in demand in May 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. This was a decrease in performance compared to the previous month (11.5%) due to a slight slowdown in growth on key trade routes including Europe – Asia and Within Europe. International capacity decreased by 17.3% in May 2021 versus May 2019, remaining unchanged from the previous month.
Middle Eastern carriers posted a 14.1% rise in international cargo volumes in May 2021 versus May 2019. This was a slight decrease compared to the previous month (15.6%). Seasonally adjusted volumes remain on a robust upward trend. International capacity in May was down 6.1% compared to the same month in 2019, a robust improvement from the 10.1% drop in April.
Latin American carriers reported a decline of 14% in international cargo volumes in May compared to the 2019 period. This was the worst performance of all regions, but a significant improvement compared to the previous month, which saw a 32.3% drop in demand. Seasonally adjusted demand also rose strongly in May. International capacity decreased 24.9% compared with May 2019, an improvement over the 52.3% decrease in April.
African airlines’ cargo demand in May increased 24.5% compared to the same month in 2019. This was a decrease in performance compared to the previous month (34.0%) due to a slowdown in trade flows between Africa and Asia. May international capacity increased by 0.5% compared to May 2019, remaining relatively unchanged from April.