Global long-haul air travel unlikely to recover to pre-crisis levels before 2023

People are more cautious about travelling, with the majority preferring to wait six months before flying, according to Iata

(FILES) In this file photo airline pilots wearing face mask arrive at TSA PreCheck for an outbound flight at Los Angeles International Airport, March 13, 2020.  Mask wearing, temperature controls, disinfection of aircraft: the International Civil Aviation Organization on June 1, 2020 published a series of health recommendations for a pandemic-hit airline industry as it relaunches air travel. The protocol was drawn up by an international task force formed by the Montreal-based ICAO with the help of other UN agencies like the World Health Organization and the powerful International Air Transport Association (IATA). / AFP / Robyn Beck
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A recovery in global long-haul air travel to pre-coronanvirus crisis levels is unlikely before 2023, the International Air Transport Association said, as airlines around the world resume flying this month after the pandemic forced countries into an unprecedented lockdown.

"Long haul travel will be the last to recover," Brian Pearce, chief economist of Iata, told reporters at a virtual press conference on Tuesday. "We need to see further progress on containing the coronavirus for countries far apart to have the confidence to have inbound travellers from distant countries with the confidence that they’re not importing Covid-19."

Global airlines are forecast to lose a combined $84 billion (Dh308.5bn) this year and almost $16bn in 2021, more than three times the loss accrued after the 2008 financial crisis, according to Iata.

The trade body, which represents some 290 carriers or 82 per cent of global air traffic, called on governments and aviation regulators to continue providing support for airlines as they face a grim winter season.

The lobby group urged authorities to extend a waiver on airport slot rules into the winter schedule that begins in November to help carriers face the impact of Covid-19 on travel demand. Airport slot rules mean airlines need to operate at least 80 per cent of their scheduled slots at airports or lose their allocated capacity. The use-it-or-lose-it rule was temporarily suspended by various regulators during the summer season due to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.

Waiving the airport slots rule in winter is much-needed for airlines as they face weak travel demand, low visibility on bookings and fragile profitability, Mr Pearce said.

Future demand is "highly uncertain" as bookings are down 82 per cent year-on-year, he said. According to an Iata survey conducted in May, only 40 per cent of passengers said they would fly within a few months of the pandemic subsiding, down from 60 per cent in April.

The majority said they would wait six months before travelling, as consumers become more cautious, Mr Pearce said.

Compounding the problem is a marked change in booking patterns where travellers are booking their tickets much closer to their travel dates than ever before. Some 41 per cent of travellers are booking their flights within three days or less before departure, compared with 18 per cent in 2019.

This means there is little visibility on future demand, making it more difficult for airlines to plan their schedules and deploy aircraft for the winter schedule in advance, Mr Pearce said, highlighting the need for an extension on airport slot waivers.

Without the waiver, "connectivity to long haul destinations will be at risk", he said.