Global passenger traffic is on track to rebound to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, with the outlook unchanged by the Omicron variant, but the Russia-Ukraine conflict poses near-term risks, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata).
The number of travellers is expected to reach four billion in 2024, more than double pre-Covid levels recorded in 2019, the industry body said in a statement on Tuesday.
"The trajectory for the recovery in passenger numbers from Covid-19 was not changed by the Omicron variant," said Willie Walsh, Iata's director general. "People want to travel. And when travel restrictions are lifted, they return to the skies."
However, the aviation industry's fragile recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is facing challenges from record-high oil prices and the unfolding Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Iata's latest forecast does not calculate the effect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
"Air transport is resilient against shocks and this conflict is unlikely to impact the long-term growth of air transport," Iata said.
"It is too early to estimate what the near-term consequences will be for aviation, but it is clear that there are downside risks, in particular in markets with exposure to the conflict."
The geographic extent, severity and time-period for sanctions and airspace closures are among the key factors that will determine the effects, Iata said. Russia, Ukraine and their neighbouring areas will be most affected.
Before the pandemic, Russia was the 11th largest market for air transport services in terms of passenger numbers, including its large domestic market. Ukraine ranked 48th.
"The impact on airline costs as a result of fluctuations in energy prices or rerouting to avoid Russian airspace could have broader implications," Iata said. "Consumer confidence and economic activity are likely to be impacted even outside Eastern Europe."
Iata's latest update of its long-term forecast shows that in 2021, overall traveller numbers were 47 per cent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 83 per cent in 2022 and 94 per cent in 2023, before exceeding pre-pandemic levels in 2024 and 2025.
In 2021, international traveller numbers were 27 per cent of 2019 levels. This is expected to reach 69 per cent in 2022, 82 per cent in 2023, 92 per cent in 2024 and to pass pre-Covid levels with a 101 per cent rise in 2025.
"This is a slightly more optimistic near-term international recovery scenario compared to November 2021, based on the progressive relaxation or elimination of travel restrictions in many markets," Iata said.
The outlook for domestic travellers is slightly more pessimistic compared with Iata's November forecast.
Domestic traveller numbers in 2021 were at 61 per cent of 2019 levels, with the figure expected to cross pre-pandemic figures by 2023.
While the US and Russian domestic markets have recovered, the same is not true for China, Canada, Japan and Australia, Iata said.
Not all markets are recovering at the same pace.
Passenger numbers to, from and within the Middle East are expected to reach 81 per cent of 2019 levels in 2022, 98 per cent in 2024 and to exceed pre-Covid levels in 2025.
"With limited short-haul markets, the Middle East's focus on long-haul connectivity through its hubs is expected to result in slower recovery," Iata said.
Africa’s passenger traffic outlook is weaker in the near term, owing to slow progress in vaccinating the population and the effect of the crisis on developing economies.
North America will rebound to pre-pandemic levels faster than other regions in 2023 and Asia-Pacific will lag other regions with a pre-Covid recovery in 2025 owing to a slow rebound in international traffic.
“The biggest and most immediate drivers of passenger numbers are the restrictions that governments place on travel. Fortunately, more governments have understood that travel restrictions have little to no long-term impact on the spread of a virus," Mr Walsh said.
"And the economic and social hardship caused for very limited benefit is simply no longer acceptable in a growing number of markets. As a result, the progressive removal of restrictions is giving a much-needed boost to the prospects for travel."