21 years of airline passenger growth wiped out by Covid travel restrictions

A report by a global aviation data firm has revealed the ‘shocking’ impact of worldwide Covid-19 travel restrictions on aviation.

The report, by Cirium, shows that the pandemic and its consequences wiped out 21 years of global aviation growth in a matter of months, reducing passenger numbers this year to levels last seen in 1999. Passenger traffic was down 67 per cent in 2020.

At the peak of the disruption in April, scheduled passenger flights dropped significantly to just 13,600 globally, on April 25, compared to 2020’s busiest day on January 3 when Cirium tracked over 95,000 scheduled passenger flights. This marks an extraordinary 86 per cent reduction in flights.

A report by global aviation data firm Cirium has revealed the ‘shocking’ impact of worldwide Covid-19 travel restrictions on aviation

From January to December airlines operated 49 per cent fewer flights in 2020 compared to 2019 – down from 33.2million flights to just 16.8million (to December 20).

Domestic travel was down 40 per cent this year to 13million, from 21.5million flights in 2019, while international flights suffered an even more precipitous drop, with a mere 3.8million flying internationally, 68 per cent below the 11.7million flights tracked the year before.

In all, 77 per cent of scheduled passenger flights flown this year have been domestic and 23 per cent international.

Cirium data analysis recorded Southwest Airlines operating the most flights globally (and in North America), with 869,800 flights in total. Meanwhile, China Southern Airlines (500,700 flights) topped the tables in Asia-Pacific, Ryanair in Europe (207,000 flights), Azul in Latin America (138,500 flights) and Qatar Airways (84,100 flights) in the Middle East and Africa.

On the ground, Atlanta was the world’s busiest airport, handling over 250,800 arriving flights during 2020, while the world’s busiest air route in both directions was within South Korea, between Seoul and the island of Jeju with 71,900 flights operated.

Forward planning for airlines has dramatically contracted from six to 12 months for flight-scheduling to just six to eight weeks – forcing carriers to be more nimble and adapt with greater speed to the rapidly changing rules and travel restrictions around the world, said Cirium.


As airlines have been forced to drastically reduce the number of aircraft still in service, those still flying are operating significantly fewer hours.

For example, narrowbody aircraft operated just six to seven hours a day in Q3 2020 compared to nine to 10 hours a day in the same period last year.

While up to 30 per cent of the global passenger fleet remains in storage, there are signs of recovery on the horizon, with only 10 per cent of short-haul Airbus A320neo aircraft currently in storage, showing that narrowbody aircraft are leading the revival, with domestic and short-haul travel returning first.

Cirium data analysis recorded Southwest Airlines operating the most flights globally (and in North America), with 869,800 flights in total

Cirium data analysis recorded Southwest Airlines operating the most flights globally (and in North America), with 869,800 flights in total

The world’s most-used aircraft type was the Airbus A320 with Cirium tracking 6.07million flights throughout 2020.

Jeremy Bowen, CEO of Cirium, said: ‘Whereas this time last year we were celebrating the on-time performance of global carriers, this year is dramatically different. Most global airlines were largely on time in 2020, it’s just a shame that the travelling public, airlines and aviation firms worldwide didn’t benefit.

‘The factors which usually cause delay, such as congested airspace, taxiways and late connecting passengers simply did not exist in 2020.’

The Cirium Airline Insights Review 2020 replaces Cirium’s annual On-Time Performance Review, which for more than a decade has identified the world’s best-performing airlines and airports for on-time flight operations.  


1. Consolidation

There will be greater consolidation of airlines, particularly in Asia-Pacific where more domestic competitors will merge or be acquired.

2. New generation aircraft

New-generation aircraft, like the A320neo, and the return of the 737 Max, will provide reduced operating costs.

3. Aircraft retirement and reconfigurations

Surplus aircraft will be retired, such as the Boeing 747, and other, newer aircraft types are projected to support the rising demand in denser leisure markets. More aircraft will also be reconfigured for carrying cargo-only.

4. Forecasting demand in new ways

In Q4, Cirium saw a 78 per cent plunge in flight bookings compared to the same period last year – this will naturally change the way the industry forecasts demand. Cirium is seeing on-line search and sentiment [opinion mining] becoming the primary indicators to calculate demand.

5. Airline operational flexibility

Airlines will need to deploy more dynamic scheduling with the increased volatility of flight-scheduling, as the booking window has fallen from between six to 12 months to just six to eight weeks.

6. Automated traveller experience

The implementation of AI technology will accelerate to automate the traveller experience and real-time proactive information will become more critical.

7. Rise of aircraft leasing

Aircraft leasing will push past the 50 per cent mark, becoming the major manner in which aircraft are financed.


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