African airlines saw nearly 70% drop in passenger demand in 2020 - but still outperformed peers

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Global standards need to be developed for digital vaccine credentials, says IATA. (Getty Images)
Global standards need to be developed for digital vaccine credentials, says IATA. (Getty Images)
  • The International Air Transport Association announced data regarding the performance of the aviation industry in 2020.
  • While African airlines saw air passenger demand drop sharply, its cargo operations grew the most of all global regions.
  • IATA calls for replacing quarantine measures with testing as hard quarantine measures deter travelling.


African airlines performed the best of all regions in the world in terms of passenger demand in 2020, according to Muhammad Ali Albakri, regional vice-president for Africa and the Middle East at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

This is despite international air passenger traffic on African airlines falling 69.8% in 2020 compared to 2019. International passenger capacity among African airlines dropped 61.5% in 2020 and the load factor dropped 15.4 percentage points to 55.9%, the lowest among all regions in the world in 2020.

In December 2020 the air passenger demand for African airlines was 68.8% below the same period in 2019, for example.

On the other hand, African airlines saw international cargo demand grow by 1.9% in 2020 compared to 2019 - the best cargo demand growth performance globally during the year. The cargo load factor of African airlines was up 8% in 2020 compared to 2019.

According to Albakri, African airlines now have the same share of the global international cargo market as carriers from Latin America, namely 2.4%.

"The year 2020 was disastrous for the aviation industry due to border closures and other measures which prevented airlines from operating. Airlines still find themselves hugely in negative territory compared to 2019. But the world needs air travel and therefore it must be kept alive," said Albakri during a webinar on Thursday.

In 2020, there was a 76% drop in international passenger demand globally, compared to 2019; a 19% drop in load factor; and a 70% drop in future travel bookings made in January. There was a 68% drop in global capacity and a load factor of 63% compared to 83% in 2019.

As for air cargo, there was an 11% drop in global demand in 2020 compared to 2019, but an increase of 8% in load factor. 

"Economic conditions are improving, but capacity remains constrained due to a 23% drop in global cargo capacity. Increased yields and revenues from cargo operations did, however, provide some support for airlines," said Akbakri.

He explained that fears about new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 - including variants found in SA and Brazil - and a worsening domestic Covid-19 situation in many countries, led to the implementation of more border restrictions, including closures and additional testing.

Improvement expected

IATA's baseline forecast for 2021 is for a 50.4% improvement on 2020 demand that would bring the industry to 50.6% of 2019 levels.

"There is a severe downside risk if more severe travel restrictions in response to new variants persist. In such a scenario, demand improvement could be limited to just 13% over 2020 levels, leaving the industry at 38% of 2019 levels," explained Albakri.

That is why IATA calls for replacing quarantine measures with testing. He said IATA is ready to build strategic partnerships with governments in this regard as hard quarantine regulations have been shows to deter travel.  

Furthermore, government relief for the aviation industry is crucial as it sustained 11 million aviation and aviation-supported jobs globally before the outbreak of Covid-19.

"Air travel is not the reason for the spread of the virus, but rather the lack of governments to control the spread locally. Governments need to mandate the issuance of digital certificates proving vaccination and a global framework for acceptable testing is urgently needed," said Albakri.

"Global standards need to be developed for digital vaccine credentials. Paper-based certification is cumbersome, slow and open to fraud."

IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac said during a recent briefing that aviation is an important engine of the world and will play a critical role in lifting the world to recovery from Covid-19. 

"The support [for the industry] starts with consistent, well-reasoned, scientifically supported policies to manage the risks of Covid-19 and travel. That is the antithesis of what we witnessed over the holiday period," said De Juniac.

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