Global air travel demand surged 67% in January after end of China Covid restrictions

Passenger traffic during the month was about 84 per cent of January 2019 levels, Iata says

Air traffic in the Middle East surged 97.7 per cent annually in January, with capacity rising nearly 46 per cent, Iata said. Getty
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Global air travel demand remained strong in January, driven by the lifting of Covid restrictions in China, the International Air Travel Association has said.

Total traffic in the first month of 2023, measured in revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) — a key industry metric — surged 67 per cent annually, the industry body said in its monthly update on Wednesday.

That put global traffic at 84.2 per cent of levels seen in January 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic began, it said.

International traffic rose 104 per cent annually, as all markets posted strong growth, led by airlines in Asia-Pacific, with international RPKs hitting 77 per cent of January 2019 levels.

Domestic air traffic climbed by nearly a third compared to the year-ago period, as China lifted its zero-Covid curbs. Total domestic traffic for January was at 97.4 per cent of levels in the same month in 2019.

The performance of the industry is an indicator of a “very healthy start in 2023", said Willie Walsh, director general of Iata.

“The rapid removal of Covid-19 restrictions for Chinese domestic and international travel bodes well for the continued strong industry recovery from the pandemic throughout the year,” he said.

Air travel was brought to a halt in 2020 as the pandemic took hold and countries imposed restrictions.

Covid restrictions in China, the world's second-biggest economy and top air travel market, were among the toughest worldwide.

But airlines started to gain momentum when economies reopened and travel curbs were lifted.

“Importantly, we have not seen the many economic and geopolitical uncertainties of the day dampening demand for travel,” Mr Walsh said.

The rapid removal of Covid-19 restrictions for Chinese domestic and international travel bodes well for the continued strong industry recovery from the pandemic throughout the year
Willie Walsh, director general of Iata

Regionally, airlines in Asia-Pacific recorded the strongest annual increase in January, posting an almost fivefold surge in traffic compared to the year-ago period, with capacity jumping more than 167 per cent.

However, this was off a “very low base when much of the region was still closed to travel”, Iata said.

Beijing began loosening restrictions in December, then reopened the country's borders for travel in early January.

Air traffic in Africa recorded a 124.8 per cent year-on-year rise during the month, with capacity up 82.5 per cent.

In the Middle East, January air traffic increased 97.7 per cent annually, with capacity rising nearly 46 per cent.

Demand for North American airlines rose 82.4 per cent, while Latin American airlines reported a 46.8 per cent increase. Capacity rose 37.3 per cent and 34.3 per cent, respectively.

Meanwhile, global air cargo traffic — which served as a lifeline for airlines during the pandemic — was off to a “soft” start in 2023, Iata said in a separate report on Wednesday.

Global demand in January, measured in available cargo tonne-kilometres, fell nearly 15 per cent annually, with international cargo operations slipping more than 16 per cent, it said.

Capacity, however, rose nearly 4 per cent — the first year-on-year growth since October 2022, as economic activity continued to expand.

The global new export orders component of the manufacturing purchasing managers' index, a leading indicator of cargo demand, rose in January for the first time since October, Iata said.

The year began under some “challenging business conditions” for the sector accompanied by persistent uncertainties, including the war in Ukraine, inflation and labour shortages, Mr Walsh said.

“But there is solid ground for some cautious optimism about air cargo,” he added.

“Yields remain higher than pre-pandemic. And China’s much faster than expected shift from its zero-Covid policy is stabilising production conditions in air cargo’s largest source market.

“That will give a much-needed demand boost as companies increase their engagement with China.”

Meanwhile, the number of fatal accidents and fatality risk in the airline industry declined in 2022 compared with the previous year, Iata said in another report on Wednesday,

Only five fatal accidents were recorded last year, down from seven in 2021, while fatality risk dropped to 0.11 from 0.23 in 2021, it said.

Both figures were also lower than the five-year average from 2018 to 2022, Iata said.

“Careful analysis of the trends that are emerging even at these very high levels of safety is what will make flying even safer,” Mr Walsh said.

Updated: March 09, 2023, 11:50 AM