Ending 2011 on a high note, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports that full year 2011 passenger demand rose 5.9 percent compared to 2010. The total is in line with long-term growth trends, IATA said, warning that 2012 could be a tough year for international carriers.
Growth in demand lagged capacity increases at 6.3 percent (passenger) and 4.1 percent (cargo) putting downward pressure on load factors. The average passenger load factor for 2011 was 78.1 percent, down from 78.3 percent in 2010.
“Given the weak conditions in Western economies the passenger market held up well in 2011. But overall 2011 was a year of contrasts. Healthy passenger growth, primarily in the first half of the year, was offset by a declining cargo market. Optimism in China contrasted with gloom in Europe. Ironically, the weak euro supported business travel demand. But Europe's primarily tax and restrict approach to aviation policy left the continent's carriers with the weakest profitability among the industry's major regions. Cautious improving business confidence is good news. But 2012 is still going to be a tough year,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
Passenger demand for December rose 5.4 percent compared to the same month in 2010. But the trend since mid-year has clearly slowed, IATA said, as travel markets react with a lag to the declines in confidence that weakened cargo in the second half of 2011.
Comparisons with December 2010 are also distorted as severe winter weather in Europe and North America as well as strikes in Europe suppressed demand, IATA reports.
December 2011 passenger demand was up just 0.7 percent over November while the load factor declined 0.2 percentage points.
International air travel rose 6.9 percent last year, reflecting the strong growth of 6.2 percent recorded between February and July, compared to 1.2 percent between September and December. International capacity climbed 8.2 percent, pushing the passenger load factor down to 77.4 percent. For December, international traffic climbed 6.4 percent year over year, in part owing to depressed traffic levels in 2010 in North American and Europe, and rose 1.4 percent compared to November.
North American carriers had the industry’s highest load factors for both the year—80.7 percent and the month of December, 80.5 percent. These figures demonstrate tight capacity management, as the industry coped with demand increases of just 1 percent for December and 4 percent for the year. Nevertheless, capacity still expanded a little faster than demand, with increases of 1.4 percent in December and 6 percent for the year, so load factors were not quite as high as in 2010.
Passenger demand in domestic markets for the full year rose 4.2 percent compared to a 3.1 percent rise in capacity, leading to a load factor of 79.3 percent.. December demand rose 3.7 percent from a year earlier, however, this represented a 0.5 percent decline from November. It is not clear yet whether this signals a new trend or is just an anomaly. Individual markets varied dramatically in their performance, IUATA notes.
US demand rose just 1.3 percent for the year – the result of market maturity and a sluggish US economy – but with nearly flat capacity growth of 0.5 percent, load factors led the industry at 83 percent, helping to boost airline unit revenues.
“Improving business confidence and encouraging news from the US economy are heartening developments. But it is far too early to start predicting a soft landing for 2012. The euro zone crisis is far from over. Failure to achieve a durable solution will have dire consequences for economies around the world. And it would most certainly tip the airline industry into the red,” said Tyler.