Domestic routes accounted for a clear majority of global airline traffic in 2021, according to newly released IATA figures, demonstrating the uneven recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Domestic represented just over 62% of total traffic, which is a complete reversal from where we were in 2019, when domestic was 36% of total traffic,” IATA DG Willie Walsh said at a Jan. 25 press briefing. “This reinforces what we've been saying for some time: that domestic travel, where generally there are few, if any government restrictions, shows that people will travel. The domestic markets have recovered quite strongly from the initial decline back in March of 2020.”
Total global airline capacity in 2021 was down 65.3% versus 2019 and load factor stood at 58%, IATA reported. Load factor in 2021 was 24 percentage points down compared to 2019. In December 2021, total global capacity was down 37.6% versus December 2019.
Walsh said Australia was a notable exception to the domestic recovery trend, noting the country’s domestic traffic was 62.4% down in 2021 versus 2019. “That's because of border closures within Australia,” Walsh said. “But overall [globally], domestic markets performed strongly.”
Walsh said that international routes showed signs of recovery “towards the end of the year in most markets, with the exception of the Asia-Pacific region, which has continued to lag significantly behind the rest of the world,” Walsh said. That sentiment echoes what airlines around the world have been saying: routes to/from and within Asia are expected to remain in low demand through 2022.
“That’s solely down to the travel restrictions that exist in that part of the world,” Walsh said. “In 2019, international travel within Asia, within that region, represented 13.3% of international travel, the second-biggest market after the within-Europe market. In 2019, it was 13.3% of the [global] market and in 2021 it was 1.5%. And indeed even more staggering is that the seat factor in [Asia in] 2019 was 80%. In 2021, it was 26%. So, it just shows the total collapse of international travel in that region. And that's, I would say, solely down to the restrictions on international travel that have been imposed by governments.”
Europe in 2021 represented about half of all international travel, Walsh said.
He predicted that international travel outside of Asia will recover in 2022. “We have cautioned about some short-term impact because of omicron and the reintroduction of some restrictions towards the end of ,” Walsh said. “But I think once those restrictions start to be removed—and we're seeing evidence of this now—we should see international travel recover because it's clear that the underlying demand from passengers remains quite strong.”
Walsh pushed for governments around the world to largely lift travel restrictions, especially for passengers who have received COVID-19 vaccinations.
“No matter what way we look at this, when we slice and dice the data that we have available to us, it very strongly tells us that once restrictions are removed, the underlying demand is good,” Walsh said. “What has caused uncertainty in the minds of consumers has been the removal and reintroduction of restrictions and the uncertainty around what rules apply. But I'm pleased to say that we are seeing some positive signs in relation to government actions on this side.”
Walsh added: “International restrictions for fully vaccinated people should not apply—they should be free to travel without testing and without restriction. And for those who can't be vaccinated because they haven't had access to vaccines or for other reasons can't be vaccinated, then a sensible testing regime can be an effective means of managing the risk.”