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One Year In: Air Travel Plummeted During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The Briefing

  • In the spring of 2020, two-thirds of the world’s passenger jets were grounded
  • Lockdowns and travel restrictions have had a significant impact on commercial air travel—for 2020, the industry reported an estimated net loss of $118.5 billion

One Year In: Air Travel Plummeted during COVID-19 Pandemic

It’s no surprise that the commercial air travel industry took a hit in 2020, given the pandemic-induced travel restrictions that began early last year.

However, it’s worth noting the sheer magnitude of the situation—according to IATA, COVID-19 was the most drastic hit to the industry since World War II.

Low Air Travel, Steep Losses

To measure air traffic, IATA uses the industry-wide metric revenue passenger kilometers (RPK). RPK is calculated by taking the number of revenue-paying passengers, and multiplying that by the total distance traveled.

In 2020 as a whole, RPK dropped by 66%—the steepest yearly decline in aviation history. As a result, the global aviation industry reported an estimated net loss of $118.5 billion.

International vs. Domestic

International air travel was hit a lot harder than domestic travel—in 2020, RPK for the worldwide international market fell 75.6%. In April, when strict lockdowns limited travel the most, international RPK was down 98% year-over-year.

In contrast, domestic only dropped by 48.8% in 2020 as a whole.

In terms of regional markets, Asia Pacific saw the largest decrease in RPK, with a decrease of more than 80%.

International MarketRPK for 2020 (% year-on-year)
Africa-69.8%
Asia Pacific-80.3%
Europe-73.7%
Latin America-71.8%
Middle East-72.9%
North America-75.4%

On the domestic side of things, Australia saw one of the steepest drops in RPK, at 69.5%. This makes sense, given the country’s relatively strict COVID-19 restrictions and regional lockdowns.

Domestic MarketRPK for 2020 (% year-on-year)
🇦🇺 Australia-69.5%
🇧🇷 Brazil-49.0%
🇨🇳 China-30.8%
🇮🇳 India-55.6%
🇯🇵 Japan-53.6%
🇷🇺 Russia-23.5%
🇺🇲 U.S.-59.6%

Note: These domestic passenger markets accounted for 46% of global total RPKs and approximately 84% of total domestic RPKs in 2020

The Future Looks Bright

While 2020 was a tough year, the future of aviation looks promising.

For example, China’s domestic market showed a negative correlation between new COVID-cases and RPK. When cases were down, RPK increased drastically, showing that there’s pent-up demand.

So once the virus is eradicated and restrictions are lifted, IATA expects flight activity worldwide to bounce back, as they did in China.

» Want to learn more? Check out our COVID-19 information hub to help put the past year into perspective

Where does this data come from?

Source: IATA December 2020 Report

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