Has Global Air Traffic Recovered from COVID? Are we doing better now than in 2019?

The pandemic is seemingly ending, but has global air traffic recovered from COVID-19 yet? IATA’s November 2022 report shows a promising sign. And though the numbers are not as good as those of the pre-pandemic year (2019), it’s getting there.

air traffic recovery from covid
Digital board showing flights being cancelled due to COVID-19 © Vertigo3d

Global Air Traffic Rises (as of November 2022)

IATA November 2022 data reveals a rise in total traffic by approximately 41.3% from the same month last year. The traffic is measured by revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs); which accounts for the number of passengers and distance travelled. In perspective, last year’s traffic was at 75% of the pre-COVID year.

Domestic travel has been growing at a rapid rate. Compared to November 2021, domestic travel increased by 3.4% with Australia being the country with the highest air traffic. Despite China’s restrictions – which posted an unfavourable impact on global air traffic – the 2022 domestic travel was 77.7% of the 2019 level.

The International Air Transport Association flag © IATA

International travel is also blooming; total traffic rose 85.2% versus November 2021, with Asia-Pacific airlines generating the most impressive year-on-year growth at; a 373.9%  increase from the year prior.

iata november 2022
Vacant and occupied seats in a plane © Ranimiro Lotufo Neto

Europe, on the other hand, had the most settled number of international travel. European airlines together pulled off 45.3% growth compared to November 2021, but its load factor level (how much of an airline’s seat capacity is being booked) was at 83.8%, which was the highest of all regions.

We also see an overall increase in capacity by airlines across continents.

Read the full report here: IATA Air Passenger Market analysis

Air Cargo Traffic Flops as Export Drops

People are rightfully enjoying the freedom of travel after being cooped up inside since 2020. But while the demand for commercial flights is ramping up, the air cargo market is going the other way

The global air cargo market shrunk by 13.7% compared to the year prior, which equals a minor contraction of around -10% when compared to the number from November 2019.

air traffic
Cargo ship cruising through an ocean © Suriyapong Thongsawang

But on a larger scale, the new export orders (an indicator of international demand for a country’s goods and services) have been shrinking in most countries, except for Germany, South Korea, and the US.

The overall global goods trade had expanded by 3.3% towards the end of 2022, which suggests that the traffic had shifted from aero to marine. And this might be due to the rising price of jet fuel.

Currently, Jet A1 (mostly used type of jet fuel) costs a little over $810 per metric tonne, while VLSFO ship fuel is only $636.

As for performances by regions, in contrast to passenger traffic, the air cargo volumes of Asia-Pacific decreased by almost 15% from the month prior, and by 18.6% when compared to the number from November 2021. But this is never a surprise given that the region was faced with issues involving low manufacturing activities, disruptions in supply chains, and lower trade levels due to the COVID situation in China.

Will We See a Full Recovery in 2023?

Airlines recovery from covid
Willie Walsh, Director General of the IATA © Reuters

The November 2022 data truly shows a potential growth of the air industry in this current year, but there is still a catch. Willie Walsh, Director General of IATA states:

Traffic results in November reinforce that consumers thoroughly enjoy the freedom to travel. Unfortunately, the reactions to China’s reopening of international travel in January remind us that many governments are still playing science politics regarding COVID-19 and travel.

Meanwhile, aviation experts at Eurocontrol speculate that European airlines should be at a 95% recovery by August 2023. They also added that the obstacles that will slow us down remain the same as last year; staff shortages, unstable economic conditions and fuel prices.

But Walsh thinks otherwise. Walsh told Reuters that the air industry will pick up a pace of recovery throughout 2023 and the mentioned obstacles are unlikely to get in the way.

Do you think we will match the pre-pandemic number by the end of this year? Let us know down below!

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Panaphorn Khongpasuk
Panaphorn Khongpasuk
Aviation Reporter - A Thai medical graduate of the Poznan University of Medical Science, Panaphorn indulges her creativity through writing and art. She is currently working as a ghostwriter at The Urban Writers (Niches: Health, Medicine, Self-help) and contributes to Travel Radar on the side.