Airline recovery around the world during COVID-19: Which countries are bouncing back?

Where in the world is air travel recovering fastest?

Airlines were gutted in 2020. More than 60 per cent of the world's commercial aircraft were grounded. Whole fleets headed off to spend months in the warm, dry, desert sunshine of aircraft storage facilities. In April 2020, the International Air Transport Association warned that 25 million jobs were at risk due to plummeting demand for air travel caused by COVID-19. According to an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) report, 'Effects of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Civil Aviation', released on July 6, 2021, the world's airline industry lost US$371bn in gross passenger revenue in 2020, with another loss of $US286-317bn expected in 2021.

Given the carnage in the airline industry, you might expect some big names to disappear from the skies but that didn't happen. CAPA, The Centre for Aviation, lists just 34 airlines that did not survive 2020. Yet according to travel data company Cirium, 46 commercial airlines failed in 2019, and 56 the year before. Most of 2020's casualties were smaller airlines operating only a few routes, but a few budget carriers also failed to see the year's end, including Tigerair Australia. CAPA also counted nine new regional and low-cost carriers that entered the market in 2020, along with four full-service operators.

However, some major airlines that were facing financial headwinds pre-pandemic including Alitalia, South African Airways and Thai Airways found their decline accelerated, and only major cash injection from their respective governments has kept them airborne. Taxpayer-funded aid to Qantas since the start of the pandemic is nudging close to $1.5 billion according to the Australian Financial Review.

China is the only country where the number of travellers on domestic air routes is now greater than in 2019. As early as October 2020, China's domestic air travel was trending above that of October 2019. There was a drop-off when China went into lockdown in mid-January 2021 but by March, more passengers were travelling aboard China's domestic air services than in March 2019.

The US, a fast mover

According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, air travel is now closing in on pre-pandemic levels of 2019. In the last week of June 2021, there were 185,895 flight departures from US airports. The figure for that same week in 2019 was just 17,836 higher. The 2021 figure is almost double the number of departures for the same week in 2020. Further evidence for the rapid return of US air travel, in the first week of 2021, the number of departures was two-thirds down on the figure for 2019.

Isolating domestic departures from international shows even greater return to normalcy. The figure of 167,928 domestic flight departures in the last week in June 2021 was just 2867 short of domestic flight departures for the same week in 2019.

Europe lags

According to European air traffic control organisation EUROCONTROL, in the week up to June 23, 2021 there was 48 per cent less air traffic over Europe than for the same week in 2019. However, that figure of 18,094 flights represents an increase of 16 per cent on traffic over the one-week figure recorded at the beginning of June. It's also the highest one-week figure since March 20, 2020, suggesting a swift recovery for airline travel.

Among the 10 busiest European airlines, most were operating about half as many flights on June 23, 2021 as on that same date in 2019. Turkish Airlines was one of the least affected, operating just one-third fewer flights on June 23, 2021 compared with that date in 2019, while Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus did even better, down by just 15 per cent.


The European state where air traffic recovered fastest over the two-week period before June 23 was Greece, with a 41 per cent increase, reflecting a surge in holidaymakers. Slowest recovery over that period was in the UK and Norway, both up by just 5 per cent. In the case of the UK that probably reflects ongoing concern at the dominance of the Delta variant in that country. Further evidence of that problem, London's Heathrow was the 10th busiest European airport in the week between 16-23 June, 2021, with average daily air traffic two-thirds less than over the same period in 2019. Before the pandemic, Heathrow was Europe's busiest airport, a position it had held for decades. Meanwhile, Istanbul's new IGA Airport was Europe's busiest airport, ahead of Amsterdam's Schiphol, Frankfurt and Paris' Charles de Gaulle.


A total of 3.8 million passengers travelled on Australia's domestic aviation services in April 2021 according to statistics from the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics. That's equal to 70 per cent of the number carried in April 2019 and more than 10 times the number recorded in April 2020, following the first shockwave of the pandemic. Air travel between Sydney and Melbourne is once again the busiest route in the country, with 463,000 passengers in the month of April 2021. However that figure is a big drop from 2019, when more than 830,000 travelled between the two cities per month on average, making it the world's fifth busiest air route.

The biggest change is in international passenger movements. For the year ending in April 2021, Australia recorded just 832,000 international arrivals and departures, a drop of 98 per cent on the year ending in April 2020. Despite that cliff-fall, international passenger traffic was almost 50 per cent higher in April 2021 compared with April 2020.

The recovery might be short-lived as the government moves to taper the number of international arrivals, leading to predictions that some airlines might offer fewer services to and from Australia. Most of the recent increase has been due to the trans-Tasman bubble which began in April 2021. However the latest requirement for Australians to have a negative PCR test before boarding a flight to New Zealand puts another dampener on the trans-Tasman route, with the possibility of fewer flights.

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