Saturday,  September 25, 2021  6:19 pm

IATA releases air transport stats for 2020 – the “worst year on record”

IATA releases air transport stats for 2020 – the “worst year on record”
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

This may come as no surprise, but 2020 was the worst year on record for global air transport, according to new performance numbers released by The International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The devastating figures, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, is outlined in the IATA World Air Transport Statistics (WATS).

It ain't pretty, but here are some key stats IATA is highlighting:

  • 1.8 billion passengers flew in 2020, a decrease of 60.2% compared to the 4.5 billion who flew in 2019.
  • Industry-wide air travel demand (measured in revenue passenger-kilometers, or RPKs) dropped by 65.9% year-on-year
  • International passenger demand (RPKs) decreased by 75.6% compared to the year prior
  • Domestic air passenger demand (RPKs) dropped by 48.8% compared to 2019
  • Air connectivity declined by more than half in 2020 with the number of routes connecting airports falling dramatically at the outset of the crisis and was down more than 60% year-on-year in April 2020
  • Total industry passenger revenues fell by 69% to $189 billion in 2020, and net losses were $126.4 billion in total
  • The decline in air passengers transported in 2020 was the largest recorded since global RPKs started being tracked around 1950.

“2020 was a year that we’d all like to forget,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general in a statement. “But analyzing the performance statistics for the year reveals an amazing story of perseverance.”

At the depth of the crisis in April 2020, 66% of the world’s commercial air transport fleet was grounded as governments closed borders or imposed strict quarantines, Walsh pointed out.

“A million jobs disappeared. And industry losses for the year totaled $126 billion,” he said. “Many governments recognized aviation’s critical contributions and provided financial lifelines and other forms of support.”

“But it was the rapid actions by airlines and the commitment of our people that saw the airline industry through the most difficult year in its history.”

Performance by region

The report outlines flight activity by region: The Middle East, for instance, suffered the largest proportion of loss for passenger traffic with a drop of 71.5% in RPKs versus 2019, followed by Europe (-69.7%) and the Africa region (-68.5%).

China showed the largest domestic market in 2020 “for the first time on record” as air travel rebounded faster in that region following efforts to control COVID-19, IATA said.

Asia-Pacific ranked number one as far as total passengers carried on scheduled services by airlines registered in that region (780.7 million passengers, a decrease of 53.4% compared to 2019).

North America (401.7 million passengers) ranked second and Europe (389.9 million passengers) ranked third.

The top five airlines ranked by total scheduled passenger kilometres flown, were:

  1. American Airlines (124 billion)
  2. China Southern Airlines (110.7 billion)
  3. Delta Air Lines (106.5 billion)
  4. United Airlines (100.2 billion)
  5. China Eastern Airlines (88.7 billion)


The report ranks other categories, too, such as the top five route areas by passenger demand and the top five domestic passenger airport-pairs. 

The top countries (nationalities) for air travel in 2020 was the United States (45.7 million), the United Kingdom (40.8 million) and Germany (30.8 million).

The “bright spot” for air travel in 2020 was cargo flights “as the market adapted to keep goods moving,” IATA said.

Finally, Star Alliance maintained its position as the largest airline alliance in 2020 with 18.7% of total scheduled traffic (in RPKs), followed by SkyTeam (16.3%) and oneworld (12.7%).

The IATA World Air Transport Statistics (WATS) report can be previewed here and purchased here.


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