The number of international passengers carried by Asia-Pacific airlines totaled 16.7 million in 2021, representing just 4.4% of the volumes recorded in 2019 before the pandemic began.
Preliminary traffic figures released by the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) highlight the impact of government-imposed border measures on the recovery. The association said that international seat capacity was 13.8% of 2019 levels, while the international passenger load factor last year was a “paltry” 32%.
“For a second year running international passenger travel remained severely suppressed, as a result of strict border measures imposed throughout the region and elsewhere,” AAPA director general Subhas Menon said. “It is the worst crisis the region’s airlines have ever faced in terms of duration and depth.
“As vaccination programs got under way, some governments began to ease travel restrictions in the later part of the year, supporting some improvement in the number of international passengers carried in December to 7.6% of 2019 volumes. However, the emergence of the omicron variant has put the brakes on recovery.”
Despite the dismal international passenger figures, the AAPA said the air cargo segment has been a “silver lining” for the aviation industry. For the full year 2021, international air cargo demand as measured in freight tonne kilometers (FTK) registered a robust 20.1% year-on-year increase after posting a 15.4% annual decline in 2020.
Compared with the growth in demand, offered freight capacity expanded at a markedly slower pace of 8.1% in 2021 as the drastically reduced international passenger operations adversely affected belly-hold capacity. However, this was partly mitigated by the deployment of cargo-only passenger flights and increased freighter operations.
As a result, the international freight load factor climbed 7.4 percentage points to 74.3%, the highest annual average on record.
“Overall, while 2021 will be remembered as one of the most challenging years for the region’s airlines, it has also demonstrated the industry’s extraordinary resilience as airlines continue to play a vital role in connecting people and transporting essential goods across the world,” Menon said.
“For meaningful recovery to take place, border restrictions would need to be eased on a consistent basis, and the current multi-layered travel requirements streamlined and simplified for travelers. Collaboration among aviation stakeholders and governments is key to the safe and sustained resumption of air travel.”