Coronavirus US/Europe

Air travel recovery stalls as governments tighten borders

London's Gatwick Airport in July. Numbers show that the recovery in air travel, which began in late May to early June last year, had stalled by November. The outlook for the first quarter of this year looks dismal as well.
London's Gatwick Airport in July. Numbers show that the recovery in air travel, which began in late May to early June last year, had stalled by November. The outlook for the first quarter of this year looks dismal as well.PHOTO: REUTERS

Despite widespread expectations of a gradual recovery, global air travel has stalled amid border clampdowns by governments more concerned about the spread of Covid-19 than the health of their economies.

Chief executive and director-general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata) Alexandre de Juniac lamented that international and domestic air travel numbers had flattened out through November last year due to the absence of a balanced approach to tackling cross-border travel.

And the outlook for the first quarter of this year looks dismal.

"While we still see airlines turning cash positive within the year, the near-term picture is bleak," he said at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday evening.

"Instead of a boost from the year-end holiday period, we got even more restrictions. Governments tightened borders in a knee-jerk response to a virus mutation.

"Canada, UK, Germany, Japan and others added testing to their Covid-19 measures without removing quarantine requirements."

Mr de Juniac said that governments had largely ignored the International Civil Aviation Organisation's Council Aviation Recovery Task Force recommendations outlining safe travel protocols.

"Airlines bring this same serious approach to safety to everything that we do - including Covid-19.

"And that is one of the reasons why the slow pace of progress in the crisis is so frustrating. We are working tirelessly with governments to keep flying safe and reduce the risk of Covid-19 importation. The industry's situation is still perilous."

Indeed, the numbers show that the recovery in air travel, which began in late May to early June last year, had stalled by November.

Total demand (measured in revenue passenger kilometres) was down 70.3 per cent in November year on year, virtually unchanged from the 70.6 per cent year-on-year decline in October.

International passenger demand in November was 88.3 per cent down year on year, slightly worse than the 87.6 per cent year-on-year decline in October.

Recovery in domestic demand, which had been the relative bright spot, also stalled, with November traffic down 41 per cent compared with the previous year, and flat from October.

Asia-Pacific carriers fared the worst, with November traffic plunging 95 per cent from a year earlier, and flattening out from October.

Iata's data also shows weak forward bookings into the first quarter of this year, with bookings down more than 80 per cent year on year in February-March.

Mr de Juniac blasted governments for not taking a balanced approach: "They appear to be aiming for a zero-Covid world. This is an impossible task that comes with severe consequences - the full extent of which it would be impossible to calculate."

He said that if governments stuck to this approach, travel and tourism will not recover, jobs will continue to disappear, and the toll on mental health will continue to grow.

"Science tells us that travellers will not be a significant factor in community transmission if testing is used effectively.

"But most governments have tunnel vision on quarantine and are not at all focused on finding ways to safely reopen borders - or alleviate the self-imposed economic and mental health hardships of the lockdowns."

Mr de Juniac called for consistent, well-reasoned and scientifically supported policies to manage the risks of Covid-19 and travel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2021, with the headline 'Air travel recovery stalls as governments tighten borders'. Print Edition | Subscribe