Global airline chiefs will gather in person for the first time in two years at their annual industry meeting, signalling a rebound from the disastrous effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, to discuss pressing issues from charting a post-crisis recovery path to tackling growing environmental pressures.
The industry's bosses will converge in Boston on Sunday to reflect on an aviation landscape ravaged by the worst crisis in its history and trace the future of travel in a post-Covid era. At the top of their agenda will be the challenges of reducing carbon emissions, restarting global travel while mitigating Covid-19 health risks, eco-friendly technologies such as hydrogen-powered planes and progress on improving the persistently low levels of diversity in senior ranks.
The International Air Transport Association's 77th Annual General Meeting will be held from October 3 to 5 alongside the World Air Transport Summit, after it was postponed in June and held online in 2020.
"This year’s AGM is expected to become one of the most symbolic and significant in-person gatherings of global aviation leaders in history," Linus Bauer, founder and managing director of Bauer Aviation Advisory, said. "The 77th AGM will mark a milestone on the flightpath to a brighter future in the post-pandemic era. The in-person interaction is undoubtedly essential in driving business opportunities, tackling current issues in aviation and in sparking innovation."
The three-day summit will reveal Iata's latest economic forecast for the industry's losses this year and the latest projection of recovery to pre-crisis levels. In April, Iata predicted industry losses of $47.7 billion in 2021, an improvement on last year's $126.4bn deficit. The summit will also explore air passenger and cargo trends, key indicators of consumer confidence and world trade as the global economy recovers. The gathering of some 100 aviation chief executives will be the first in-person AGM with Iata director-general Willie Walsh since he took the helm in April.
The meeting will set an example to encourage the return of business travel that continues to lag behind leisure trips, analysts say.
"It's important for the industry to support the wider return of conferences which are an important market for the airlines," John Grant, chief analyst at data specialist firm OAG, said. "They can hardly bemoan the slow recovery of the MICE [meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions] market if they don’t hold their own event."
Air travel demand is currently in better shape compared to 2020 as rising vaccine and testing levels worldwide encourage more governments to reopen their borders.
The US reopening to international travellers will also boost the lucrative transatlantic market and provide much-needed relief to cash-strapped airlines.
"There are some really positive signs, particularly the imminent opening up of the Europe-US market, but nevertheless there's a long way to go before getting close to any broad normality," aviation consultant John Strickland said.
However, developed countries have better access and faster roll-out of vaccines than developing economies, which has led to uneven global economic growth and affected the shape and pace of airlines' recovery.
"For any meaningful aviation recovery to take place and be sustained, there has to be a rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines in all countries, something which is currently far from the reality," Mr Strickland said.
The International Monetary Fund in July forecast global economic growth of 6 per cent in 2021 and 4.9 per cent for 2022. The fund also warned of an uneven recovery and downgraded its growth outlook for emerging markets and developing economies because of the unequal access to vaccines and the emergence of Covid-19 variants.
"The aviation industry is a barometer for the global economy and developing markets are a challenge for airlines," Mr Grant said, pointing to the low vaccine rates in Africa and ensuing complications of flying internationally.
OAG expects global airlines' capacity to be only 10 per cent to 15 per cent more than last year with travel demand "still very soft", making this year only slightly better than 2020, Mr Grant said.
The industry is healthier now than in 2020, but it "isn't healthy enough to leave the intensive care unit yet", Mr Bauer said.
In August, total demand for air travel (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) was down 56 per cent compared to August 2019, and slowed down from 53 per cent in July, according to Iata's monthly report.
"August results reflect the impact of concerns over the Delta variant on domestic travel, even as international travel continued at a snail’s pace toward a full recovery that cannot happen until governments restore the freedom to travel," Mr Walsh said.
Airline chief executives gathering in Boston will have their work cut out for them in addressing an uneven recovery, developing common standards for international travel and rebuilding consumer confidence in flying again.
“As we plan for the industry recovery from Covid-19 and address critical climate change issues, the in-person discussions and debates among the industry’s top leaders and stakeholders will be particularly significant,” Mr Walsh said.