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Air traffic as an indicator of recovery

Graphic representing the volume of worldwide air traffic expressed in number of flights per day. 2021 is showing a 50% recovery vs 2020. However, notice that this does not represent the number of passengers. The big jumbos have been decommissioned and planes are flying at a fraction of their capacity. Image credit: FlightAware

I stumbled on the graphic created by FlightAware showing the number of flights per day over the last three years, that is the traffic before the pandemic, during the first phases and in these last few months when recovery has started.

The graphic is self explanatory: the daily traffic during 2019 (black line), slight growth with an increase in the North Hemisphere Summer -a usual pattern-in 2020 with the dramatic drop as the pandemic struck (from an average of 100,000 flights a day to 25,000, 75% drop) and the recovery in the second half of the year leading to a 50% volume with respect to 2019 (yellow line) and in 2021 with the number of flights around 75% of the 2019 value. A clear recovery although we are not back to pre-pandemic value.

However, if we look at the data of passengers transported the situation is worse. In Europe the traffic loss is around 60% in all major airports in 2021. Worldwide the loss in 2021 in passengers traffic has been over 1 billion passengers per quarter (1.4 billions in each of the first two quarters, 1.1 in the third and an estimated 0.8 in the fourth quarter), that on an average of 2.3 billion per quarter in 2019). Again we are in the 60% loss of passenger traffic.

Companies have reduced the number of flight (by 25% in 2021) and their capacity (all jumbos have been placed on hold, several have been decommissioned, like many 747). The decreased capacity helps in increasing the load per plane but that load is still well below what is needed to make airlines profitable again. The whole sector is losing money, and by sector I mean well beyond the airlines: it includes airports, catering services, hotels,…

Eventually the pandemic will be over, that’s a given (we do not know when but humanity went through many pandemics and even without the technology -vaccines- we have today all faded away). What is not clear is the future of the traffic structure. Will business people go back to travel as much as they did in 2019 or the new way of working will lead to a lower business traffic? It is not clear today, and this is very important because a good portion of the airlines revenues is based on the business passengers…

I haven’t attended an IEEE meeting since February 2020 and it looks like also meetings scheduled in the first quarter of 2022 will be virtual. Conferences, and there are thousands of them, have gone virtual. Now we are seeing a few going hybrid (on site and virtual). It may be that the hybrid format will stay for quite some time since it has been shown that attendance from remote is higher than the ones experienced with on-site conferences. Clearly, running an hybrid conference means to adapt timing and format to the cyberspace, to let people participate from different time zones. This is decreasing the appeal to travel. As conference organisers will become better in deploying conferences in the cyberspace I see most likely that several people will opt for the virtual conference, thus affecting the travel industry.

Personally, I have seen the working group I participate in Italy (domestic travel only) are moving to an hybrid format, letting people connect from their place. The outcome so far is that basically no one is showing up in presence! These are very limited experiences, like to hear from your perspective, but I feel they are an indication that the new normal may not look like the previous one for the travel industry and some rethinking of their business scenario will be needed.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.