Renewed optimism despite traffic being well below pre-COVID forecasts
The global pandemic removed 5.4 billion passengers from the skies last year compared to the pre-COVID-19 forecast for 2021, according to ACI World.
The total represents a loss of 55% of global passenger traffic and was less than half of what it was in 2019, with traffic for 2021 totalling only 4.4 billion (48.3%) of the 9.2 billion passengers served two years ago.
Domestic traffic continued to drive the recovery, reaching close to 3.4 billion passengers corresponding to 63.4% of 2019 levels. International passenger traffic volume lagged significantly behind domestic traffic recovery in 2021 and is estimated to total only 1.05 billion passengers for the year, or 27.8% of the 2019 level.
However, despite the slower than expected recovery and persisting financial challenges, ACI World believes that the easing of travel restrictions in key aviation markets brings some renewed optimism and momentum amid the addition of new geopolitical tensions. Indeed, it argues that the industry maybe about to embark on a potential turning point in the recovery of travel.
ACI’s latest data on the impact of COVID-19 on global passenger traffic and the airport business expects that the pandemic to remove close to 3.7 billion passengers in 2022 compared to the projected pre-pandemic forecast for the year.
If this proves accurate, it will represent a 28.9% decrease on 2019 levels.
Once again, ACI World expects domestic traffic volumes to recover faster in 2022 than international passenger traffic, reaching a total of 4.46 billion passengers in 2022, or 84% of 2019 volume.
While some improvements are expected, especially in the second half of 2022, international passenger volume is forecast to be only slightly above 2 billion passengers for the year, corresponding to 53.8% of 2019 volume.
Impact on global airport revenues: progressive improvement but financial challenges persist
The COVID-19 crisis continued to severely affect airport revenues in 2021. It is now estimated that, globally, airports have lost more than $83.1 billion in revenues in 2021.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the airport industry was expected to generate more than $175.8 billion in revenues in 2022. However, the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on airport revenues will continue in 2022, reducing them by an additional $60.8 billion, or 34.6%, compared to the projected baseline.
In fact airport revenues in 2022 are forecast to only reach 72.6% of 2019 levels.
For an in-depth global and regional analysis, read the full ACI Advisory Bulletin on the impact of COVID-19 on the airport business—and the path to recovery.
Easing travel restrictions to restore travel and tourism
According to ACI World, the momentum created by plans to reopen borders will certainly have a positive impact on the global economic recovery. It notes that the performance of the global economy has accelerated in the last months of 2021 as more pandemic restrictions were removed, facilitating the trade in goods, and enabling the manufacturing and services sectors to grow.
While ACI World remains optimistic, it is also cautious that recovery could face multiple headwinds ranging from new potential variants, high crude oil prices, higher inflation, or supply chain disruptions.
Armed conflict, such as the current situation in Ukraine, and increased geopolitical tensions around the world could also dampen the speed and magnitude of the recovery.
“Our thoughts are with the people and our colleagues in aviation impacted by the situation in Ukraine,” said ACI World’s director general Luis Felipe de Oliveira.
“As we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis, agility and adaptation is in aviation’s DNA. Airports are trained to handle crises and the priority remains to keep people – travellers and staff – safe. This is the number one priority, always. Like many, we are hoping for a peaceful resolution to this crisis.
“On the global front, it has been almost two years since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. However, we have now reached a potential turning point.
“The unprecedented global vaccination effort and latest recommendation from the WHO that governments ease travel restrictions could jumpstart the global economic recovery and that of air transport demand.
“Countries are now introducing measures for which ACI has been advocating for months: the implementation of risk and evidence-based approaches for a safe return of travel.
“ACI now calls on governments worldwide to ease travel restrictions to restore travel, trade, and tourism. During this transitional phase, the ongoing commitment to the safe resumption of travel is critical, including that of national and international regulators.
“Despite the risks that exist, the industry remains confident that the potential for a recovery to 2019 levels within two or three years is foreseeable. Airport planners and investors are encouraged to make use of the latest ACI World Airport Traffic Forecasts 2021–2040, to leverage data-driven decision-making in their short-, medium-, and long-term sustainable planning.”