Rising domestic numbers buoy the recovery, but international travel still lags and uncertain times loom
North America continues to lead the resurgence in air travel worldwide, with February traffic, as measured in revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs, climbing to within 20 percent of the same month in 2019.
Data from the International Air Transport Association shows domestic US traffic in February rebounding to just 6.6 percent below the same time period in 2019. Worldwide, domestic traffic was nearly 22 percent down from the February 2019 levels.
The recovery in international traffic continues to lag, off some 60 percent from levels posted in February 2019. Most regions reported international still down by more than 40 percent, with the overall average dragged down by the moribund Asia Pacific market, which is still 88 percent below its 2019 numbers.
Other research shows the North American air travel markets are posting greater gains in capacity compare with other global regions, with a planned weekly seat capacity of 21.2 million in March 2022.
That’s 2.1 million seats per week below the March 2019 levels of 24.3 million, or 14.8 percent down from pre-pandemic numbers, according to an analysis of Official Airline Guide data from MoneyTransfers.com, a website which offers advice and data on international money transfers.
Still, other regions are not faring as well as North America. Southeast Asia reports a planned seat capacity of 5.4 million per week, versus 9.9 million passengers weekly before March 11, 2019.
Earlier this year, IATA’s own analysis forecast the overall number of travelers was expected to rise to 83 percent of 2019 levels, and to 93 percent in 2023. By 2024, the number was projected to be 103 percent of 2019 levels, reaching 4 billion passengers.
As recently as December, aviation data and analytics provider Cirium predicted global air capacity in 2022 could rebound to levels equivalent to the number of seats flown in 2015. That would represent a 47 percent growth in capacity in 2022 over last year.
However, it’s worth noting that the current passenger traffic numbers were posted prior to the conflict in Ukraine, and have not yet factored in the spike in fuel costs, rising inflation and resulting plunge in consumer confidence.
This may fly in the face of more optimistic projections about the speed of a post-pandemic recovery.
Given recent developments, some analysts in the airline industry are offering a more cautious outlook. For example, aviation specialists at Boyd Group International have revisited their Airports:USA forecast for 2022, revising the projected number of passenger enplanements in the US downward by 61.4 million.
The new full-year forecast is predicting 822 million enplanements, a significant drop from the pre-inflation projection of over 883 million, though still well above last year’s dismal showing of under 668 million enplanements.
According to Boyd Group, the numbers are based on known and expected shifts in airline capacity, airline strategies, and airline fleets, in response to the economic climate. Already some carriers are tightening their recently-expanded capacity, notably United, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue.