ANALYSIS: Despite Domestic Gains, Border Closures Curb Capacity Growth

parked aircraft at Munich Airport
Credit: Munich Airport

While domestic airline capacity is recovering in many regions, border closures around the world are making it difficult for most carriers to offer more international departure seats. Here’s the latest global capacity picture as airlines react to ever-changing travel restrictions.


Capacity from and within Europe totaled fewer than 2.3 million departure seats in February 2021 as countries across the continent continued to impose stringent lockdown measures. The figure represented a 76% reduction compared with the same month two years earlier when 9.4 million seats were on offer.

The UK recorded the biggest decline when comparing February 2019 and February 2021, dropping by 10.8 million departure seats or 89.5%. Germany ranked second with a fall of 9.7 million seats (-87.3%), with Spain third, down by 7.7 million (-79%).

Among Europe’s carriers, Ryanair suffered the steepest decrease when comparing February 2019 with February 2021. The airline last month provided just 593,478 departure seats within Europe—almost 94% lower than two years previous.

However, there is hope on the horizon. As vaccine rollouts continue, the UK has already started planning for a progressive and coordinated restart of international travel in time for the summer season—and governments across Europe are being urged to follow suit.


North America

North America’s market shrank by 8.8% in February 2021, compared with January, to 49.5 million departure seats. This was also down 48% on February 2020, when airlines offered 95.2 million seats, and 45.2% lower than in February 2019.

The US accounted for almost 97% of the total capacity across the continent last month with 47.9 million seats—90% of which were on domestic routes. The biggest of those by two-way capacity was between Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, followed by Atlanta-Orlando.

Delta Air Lines and American Airlines remain the two biggest carriers in the world by capacity, offering 10.74 million and 10.39 million monthly departure seats, respectively, from and within North America. This puts Delta down by 37.5% on February last year and American down by 45.1%.

Canada’s travel restrictions—which include a mandatory 14-day quarantine and the suspension of all flights to the Caribbean and Mexico—meant capacity was 85.6% lower than in February 2019. International operations have unsurprisingly been hit the hardest, with carriers offering just 7% of the seats they had available in February 2019.


Latin America

The differing approach taken by governments across Latin American towards border restrictions is highlighted when looking at latest capacity data.

Mexico, which has a strong domestic market and has remained largely open throughout the crisis, has now recovered to 76.5% of pre-COVID-19 levels. There were 5.4 million available departure seats in February 2021, compared with 7.1 million two years earlier. This is despite the ongoing restructure of national carrier Aeromexico and the grounding of Interjet.

Colombia and Brazil have also enjoyed stronger recoveries, with capacity last month reaching 66.5% and 56.8%, respectively, of February 2019 levels. At the other end of the spectrum, capacity in Argentina is 27.6% compared with two years ago, while Cuba is 11% and Uruguay is just 9.5%.

Across Latin America, LCCs are driving the resumption of air services. Comparing the percentage change in capacity between February 2019 and February 2021 shows that Viva Aerobus, Volaris and Viva Air Colombia offered more seats last month than during the same period in 2019. However, the likes of Avianca, Copa Airlines and Aerolineas Argentinas remain down by 60% or more.



The strong rebound of China’s domestic market was a key focus during the early stages of the pandemic. However, fresh COVID-19 outbreaks meant there was little festive cheer around Lunar New Year as capacity contracted.

There were 47.3 million Chinese domestic departure seats in February 2021, down from 63 million in January. The Civil Aviation Administration of China’s firm rules on international services meant total capacity last month was 47.8 million seats—a figure 26.9% lower than in February 2019.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, a focus on domestic tourism has driven the resumption of routes in Vietnam. There were almost 5 million departure seats in the country last month—just 4.7% lower than February 2019 and 19.3% down on February 2020.

India’s strong domestic market also helped the South Asian country to recover 73.8% of February 2019 capacity. However, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines continue to feel the impact of international border closures.


Africa and the Middle East

The total number of departure seats across Africa totaled 6.3 million in February 2021, compared with 12.4 million in February 2019, while in the Middle East the totals were 8.8 million and 19.6 million, respectively.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the region’s largest market, capacity remains 60.2% down on two years ago. Although the likes of Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways have restored large chunks of their global networks, frequencies are much lower than pre-pandemic schedules.

However, the easing of travel restrictions, coupled with the thawing of diplomatic relations following the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement, points to more positive signs. Compared with February 2021, the latest figures for March suggest month-on-month growth of 27% in the UAE, 16% in Qatar and 11% in Saudi Arabia.

Of Africa and the Middle East’s other major markets, Ethiopia is performing relatively well with capacity last month returning to 69% of February 2019 levels. In Senegal, capacity was back at 68% and in Nigeria it was 66%.


All data provided by OAG Schedules Analyser.

David Casey

David Casey is Editor in Chief of Routes, the global route development community's trusted source for news and information.