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ACI World director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, reflects on what lies ahead for the aviation industry in 2021 and beyond.

It is safe to say that 2020 will go down as the most challenging year ever in the history of aviation. We have, of course, weathered many storms over the last few decades, but we have never experienced anything like this before.

The current crisis has had a ripple effect on every aspect of human life as we know it and will continue to have dramatic economic and social impacts for years to come. Although the situation remains tough, 2021 had a promising beginning with the news of further vaccine successes bringing fresh optimism.

Undoubtedly our industry will face significant challenges again this year, with the first few months, in particular, likely to be very difficult. There is light on the horizon, however, especially as the vaccine rollouts take effect across the globe marking a major turning point in the pandemic.

As with most developments over the last few months, it feels like every time our industry took a step forward, we were than immediately forced to take two steps back. Concern over new and fast-spreading strains of the virus has resulted in even more severe border lockdowns and quarantine measures, hampering the efforts of the industry to recover.

While these mutations do not appear to pose a threat to the success of COVID-19 vaccines, they do give the virus some new energy.

In the midst of the storm one thing is certain – people are eager to travel again. According to the latest ASQ Global Traveller Survey, when asked at the end of 2020, 48% of travellers considered themselves likely to travel within the next three months.

Airports are certainly going above and beyond to provide an airport experience that is safe, hygienic and responsive to the changing needs and expectations of passengers. Despite this eagerness, however, around 80% said that having to quarantine would discourage them from going forward with their travel plans.

Going back to how things were at the beginning of the crisis – closing borders and applying severe travel restrictions – is truly exacerbating what is already an existential crisis for aviation.

The rapid deployment of vaccines is, of course, welcomed, but the aviation industry simply cannot afford to wait until they become available worldwide. Just as quarantine measures effectively halted the industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same.

As vaccines become more available for travellers, there must be a proportionate approach to vaccination before travel balanced with a risk-based approach to testing. It is important for the recovery of the air transport industry that a co-ordinated approach to testing be introduced now to promote travel and do away with restrictive quarantine measures.

While the second half of 2021 looks promising, there is still a long way to go. According to the newly released World Airport Traffic Forecast, markets that have significant domestic traffic are not expected to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels before 2023, while those with a significant share of international traffic are unlikely to return to 2019 levels before 2024.

If aviation can be supported through government assistance and sensible policy on testing and vaccination, global passenger traffic worldwide can still double over the next twenty years.

Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean regions are predicted to experience the fastest growth, while others will see a more modest expansion. China is projected to continue to dominate passenger rankings by 2040 with just over 3.6 billion passengers. The US and India follow, with 2.9 and 1.3 billion passengers, respectively. Together, the three countries will handle almost 40% of global passenger traffic.

If this positive future is to be realised, however, we need policy support and assistance from governments now to lay the foundation, and this means delivering a consistent approach to testing and vaccination.

The extent to which COVID-19 will leave a lasting legacy is far from clear, but with every crisis there is opportunity, and we should see the pandemic as an accelerator that will enable our industry to make the necessary changes to move forward.

While the journey to recovery will not be an easy one we must continue to take a whole-of-industry approach to collaboration to ensure that the industry can recover together.

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