Global City Pairs And Passenger Traffic Climb Higher As Recovery Accelerates

A panel at the 78th IATA AGM in Doha, Qatar, from left: Willie Walsh, Director-General of IATA; Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways; Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue; and Mehmet Tevfik Nane, vice-chairperson and Managing Director of Pegasus Airlines
Credit: David Casey/Routes

The number of unique airport city pairs worldwide is expected to recover to 92% of pre-pandemic levels this year as airlines continue to restore their networks.

The latest forecasts from IATA estimate that the number of destinations connected directly by air service will rise to about 20,424 in 2022—an increase of almost 9% on the previous 12 months and on a par with levels seen in 2017.

However, although the number of routes has recovered quickly, IATA said the frequency of service on those routes will take longer to be fully restored to pre-pandemic levels.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the number of city pairs globally totaled 22,104 in 2019. But, following the coronavirus outbreak, the figure fell sharply to 15,473 in 2020. A partial recovery to 18,791 was seen in 2021.

The positive projection for this year was released as part of IATA’s latest global outlook for air transport, which said that strong pent-up demand, the lifting of travel restrictions and low unemployment in most countries was fueling a resurgence in demand that will see passenger numbers reach 83% of pre-pandemic levels in 2022.

Speaking at the 78th IATA AGM in Doha, Qatar, IATA Director-General Willie Walsh said that although some airports and airlines are struggling to scale up their activities because of staffing issues, he expects a “very positive outlook for the industry as we go through this year into next year.”

Walsh acknowledged that passenger disruption seen across parts of Europe and North America is likely to continue for the remainder of the year, but he expressed confidence that the issues would be addressed. “I think we’ve got to realise that we’re still rebuilding,” he added.

Walsh said that visibility for the northern winter 2022/23 season remains good despite the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war, inflationary pressures, rising fuel costs and China’s ongoing zero-COVID policy.

“We’re being conservative about the reopening of China, but I don’t see it in any way creating a challenge for the industry this year because Asian carriers have plenty of scope to rebuild networks in other parts,” he said.

“China obviously is an important market for a lot of airlines but everything we look at points to a positive outlook for the industry. We are going in the right direction—airlines are doing well, rebuilding revenues, and keeping costs under control.”

IATA expects airline financial performance to improve in all regions in 2022, with North America the only region forecast to return to profitability. Overall, industry losses this year are expected to be about $9.7 billion, which represents an improvement from the October 2021 forecast for an $11.6 billion loss in 2022. The industry reported losses of $137.7 billion in 2020 and $42.1 billion in 2021.

IATA’s forecast incorporates an assumption for solid global GDP growth of 3.4% in 2022.

David Casey

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