Covid-19 reaction wipes out 21 years of global aviation growth, says new report


The impact of the Covid-19 crisis has wiped out 21 years of global aviation growth, reducing 2020 passenger numbers to levels last seen in 1999.

That’s according to aviation data firm Cirium, which recently released its Airline Insights Review 2020 report.

Cirium noted that passenger traffic was down 67 per cent last year. At the peak of the disruption, scheduled passenger flights dropped to just 13,600 globally (on 25 April), compared to more than 95,000 flights on 2020’s busiest day on 3 January – an 86 per cent reduction.


From January to December, airlines operated 49 per cent fewer flights in 2020 compared to 2019 – down from 33.2 million flights to just 16.8 million (to 20 December).

Domestic travel was down 40 per cent, from 21.5 million flights in 2019, while international flights fell 68 per cent below the 11.7 million flights tracked in 2019.

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“This severe setback shows the true extent of the challenge faced by the struggling aviation sector as it has sought to reset itself in the new post Covid-19 era,” said Cirium’s CEO Jeremy Bowen.

“Whereas this time last year we were celebrating the on-time performance of global carriers, [2020] is dramatically different. Most global airlines were largely on time; it’s just a shame that the travelling public, airlines and aviation firms worldwide didn’t benefit. The factors which usually cause delay, such as congested airspace, taxiways and late connecting passengers simply did not exist in 2020.”

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Southwest Airlines operated the most flights globally (and in North America), with 869,800 flights in total. China Southern Airlines (500,700) topped the tables in the Asia Pacific, Ryanair in Europe (207,000), Azul in Latin America (138,500) and Qatar Airways (84,100) in the Middle East and Africa.

Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International was the world’s busiest airport, handling over 250,800 arriving flights in 2020, Cirium said. The world’s busiest air route in both directions was within South Korea, between Seoul and the island of Jeju with 71,900 flights operated.

Further impacts have been the forced reduction in the number of aircraft in service, as well a decrease in the flying hours of those still operating.

Narrowbody aircraft operated six to seven hours a day in the  third quarter of 2020 compared to nine to ten hours a day in the same period in 2019, Cirium reported.

There were some positives noted in the report. “While up to 30 per cent of the global passenger fleet remains in storage there are signs of recovery on the horizon, with only 10 per cent of short-haul Airbus A320neo aircraft currently in storage showing narrowbody aircraft leading the revival with domestic and short-haul travel returning first,” the data firm said.

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Bowen added: “Airlines will have a long way to go before returning to 2019 levels particularly as international travel is significantly down and showing only slow signs of recovery, mainly in China and southeast Asia.

“But Cirium is confident aviation will weather this difficult and terrible year and emerge in better shape – with younger more fuel-efficient aircraft and right-sized fleets – and will gradually navigate its way to recovery in the years ahead.”

Among the 2021 trends identified in the Airline Insights Review 2020, Cirium expects consolidation and more aircraft to be reconfigured for carrying cargo only. It also expects aircraft leasing to push past the 50 per cent mark, becoming the major manner in which aircraft are financed.

The full Cirium Airline Insights Review 2020 can be read here.

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