2009: Worst Demand Decline in Airlines History

Despite encouraging year-end improvements, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported December and full-year 2009 demand statistics for international scheduled air traffic that showed the industry ending 2009 with the largest ever post-war decline. Passenger demand for the full year was down 3.5 percent with an average load factor of 75.6 percent. Freight showed a full-year decline of 10.1 percent with an average load factor of 49.1 percent. IATA also sees airlines challenged by increasing security costs.

“In terms of demand, 2009 goes into the history books as the worst year the industry has ever seen. We have permanently lost 2.5 years of growth in passenger markets and 3.5 years of growth in the freight business,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO.

International passenger capacity fell 0.7 percent in December 2009 while freight capacity grew 0.6 percent above December 2008 levels. Yields have started to improve with tighter supply-demand conditions in recent months, but they remained 5-10 percent down on 2008 levels.

“Revenue improvements will be at a much slower pace than the demand growth that we are starting to see. Profitability will be even slower to recover and airlines will lose an expected US$5.6 billion in 2010,” said Bisignani.

Seasonally adjusted demand figures for December compared to November 2009 indicate a 1.6 percent rise in passenger traffic while freight remained basically flat with a 0.2 percent decline.

International Passenger Demand

December 2009 passenger demand recorded a 4.5 percent improvement compared to December 2008, with a load factor of 77.6 percent. While this is an 8.4 percent demand improvement from the February 2009 low point, it is still 3.4 percent below the early 2008 peak.

Carriers in Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America recorded year-on-year declines in passenger demand of 5.6 percent, 5 percent and 5.6 percent respectively in 2009. Asia-Pacific carriers stand out as benefiting most from the year-end upturn with an 8.0 percent year-on-year improvement in December. This reflects their 35 percent contribution to the year-end rise boosted by the significant economic upturn in the region. By contrast, European carriers saw a 1.2 percent decline and North American carriers declined by 0.4 percent. While both North American and European carriers saw demand improvements in the first half of the year, the second half was basically flat.

“The industry starts 2010 with some enormous challenges. The worst is behind us, but it is not time to celebrate. Adjusting to 2.5-3.5 years of lost growth means that airlines face another spartan year focused on matching capacity carefully to demand and controlling costs,” said Bisignani.

“We also face a renewed challenge on security as a result of the events of December25, 2009. The approach of the Obama administration is encouraging with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visiting IATA’s offices in Geneva to engage industry to find solutions. We agreed that governments and industry must cooperate and we are preparing for a meeting in the coming weeks to follow-up on our recommendations which focused on finding more efficient ways to implement intelligence-driven and risk-based security measures,” said Bisignani.

“Governments and industry are aligned in the priority that we place on security. But the cost of security is also an issue. Globally, airlines spend US$5.9 billion a year on what are essentially measures concerned with national security. This is the responsibility of governments, and they should be picking up the bill,” said Bisignani.

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