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IATA Reports Strong Airline Passenger Recovery in 2023

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is reporting a positive trend in the resurgence of air travel as of December 2023. A substantial improvement in the number of airline passengers flying in 2023 marked a significant step towards recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

passengers seated on the plane
Photo by Domenico Bandiera on

Here are the key points highlighting the growth in air travel:

  • Overall Growth: Regarding total air travel in 2023, there was a noticeable upturn of 36.9% compared to the previous year. Looking at the bigger picture, the aggregate traffic for the year stood at a promising 94.1% of the levels recorded in 2019 before the global crisis commenced.
  • Rise in December: Traffic in December 2023 alone experienced a 25.3% rise from the same month in 2022. Remarkably, this brought December’s figures to 97.5% of the numbers in the same month of the pre-pandemic year.
  • Fourth Quarter Surge: The final quarter of 2023 showed a robust recovery, achieving 98.2% of the traffic compared to the corresponding quarter 2019.
  • International Travel: 2023 was a year of rebound for international flights, witnessing a 41.6% increase from 2022. For the entire year, international travel reached 88.6% of the volume seen in 2019. December’s international traffic continued at a similar pace, with a 24.2% increase compared to December 2022 and reaching 94.7% in December 2019.
  • Domestic Flights: On the domestic front, 2023 was a year that surpassed pre-pandemic figures. Overall, domestic traffic rose 30.4% over the previous year, 3.9% higher than in 2019. Impressively, December’s domestic traffic grew by 27.0% over the previous year and exceeded the 2019 December traffic by 2.3%.

These numbers indicate that despite the challenges faced in the past few years, the demand for air travel is on a strong incline, pacing steadily towards the familiar skies of pre-pandemic air travel levels.

IATA: Air passenger market in Detail. December 2023
IATA: Air passenger market in Detail. December 2023

International Airline Passenger Markets

Strong Growth in Asia-Pacific Airline Traffic in 2023

In a year of strong recovery, Asia-Pacific airlines soared with an impressive 126.1% increase in international traffic in 2023 compared to the previous year, outpacing all other regions. The sector’s capacity growth followed suit at 101.8%, while the load factor – an indicator of how full flights are – leapt 9.0 percentage points to reach 83.1%. The tail end of the year echoed this positive trend, with December traffic up by 56.9% from December 2022.

European Airlines Experience Annual Traffic Boost

The aviation market in Europe also enjoyed success, with European carriers registering a 22.0% boost in traffic for the full year against 2022. Their capacity rose by 17.5%, and the load factor nudged upward by 3.1 percentage points to 83.8%, marking a milestone in December where traffic exceeded 2019’s pre-pandemic levels for the first time, up 13.6% from December 2022.

Middle Eastern Carriers on an Upward Trajectory

Middle Eastern airlines reported healthy growth, with a 33.3% increase in traffic in 2023 when stacked against 2022’s figures. With capacity increasing by 26.0% and load factors rising by 4.4 percentage points up to 80.1%, December saw a significant uplift in demand by 16.6% compared to the same month the previous year.

North American Airlines See Continued Recovery

Tapping into the global upturn, North American carriers showed resilience and growth, with a 28.3% uptick in annual traffic for 2023. Capacity expanded by 22.4%, and the load factor increased by 3.9 percentage points to a hearty 84.6%. December continued on this positive note, with a 13.5% increase in traffic compared to the same period in 2022.

Latin American Airlines Hit Highest Load Factor

Continuing the trend, Latin American airlines posted a 28.6% rise in traffic in 2023 over the previous year. They expanded their capacity by 25.4% and achieved the highest load factor of all regions at 84.7%, with an increase of 2.1 percentage points. Demand in December mirrored this robust expansion, jumping 26.5% from December 2022.

African Airlines on the Rise Despite Challenges

On the African front, African airlines made notable strides in 2023, with a 38.7% hike in annual traffic compared to 2022. Capacity saw an almost parallel increase at 38.3%, while the load factor rose slightly by 0.2 percentage points to 71.9%, despite being the lowest among the regions. The upward trend continued into December with a 9.5% rise in traffic compared to December 2022.

Domestic Airline Passenger Markets

China’s domestic traffic for the year rose 138.8% compared to 2022 and 7.1% above 2019.

Australia (-4.2% compared to 2019) and Japan (-3.2% compared to 2019) are the only major domestic markets yet to recover pre-pandemic traffic demand.

Total Air Passenger Markets December 2023

Airline Post-Pandemic Rebound Continues

“The strong post-pandemic rebound continued in 2023. December traffic stood just 2.5% below 2019 levels, with a strong performance in quarter 4, teeing-up airlines for a return to normal growth patterns in 2024,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General. 

“The recovery in travel is good news. The restoration of connectivity is powering the global economy as people travel to do business, further their educations, take hard-earned vacations and much more. But to maximize the benefits of air travel in the post-pandemic world, governments need to take a strategic approach. That means providing cost-efficient infrastructure to meet demand, incentivizing Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production to meet our net zero carbon emission goal by 2050, and adopting regulations that deliver a clear cost-benefit. Completing the recovery must not be an excuse for governments to forget the critical role of aviation to increasing the prosperity and well-being of people and businesses the world over,” Walsh added.

The Bottom Line

“Our push to connect our world even more strongly than before the pandemic must not come at the expense of our environment. The industry’s goal to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 remains steadfast. To accelerate the transition, we need governments and fuel suppliers to step up and do more. We saw a strong increase in the use of SAF in 2023, but SAF is still only 3% of all global renewable fuels production. That is unacceptable. Aircraft have no option but to rely on liquid fuels, whereas other transport modes have alternatives. A massive collective effort is needed to increase SAF output as a proportion of overall renewable fuel production as quickly as possible,” said Walsh.

Additional Notes From IATA

  • The International Air Transport Association (IATA) represents approximately 320 airlines, or 83% of global air traffic.
  • IATA Economics compiles statistics using direct airline reporting and estimates, including FlightRadar24 data under license.
  • All data provided is provisional, combining total reported figures at publication with estimates for missing data, and is subject to future revision.
  • In 2022, domestic Revenue Passenger Kilometers (RPKs) comprised about 41.9% of the total market, with the six domestic markets discussed representing 31.3% of global RPKs.
  • Key terms explained:
    • RPK: Revenue Passenger Kilometers, measuring actual passenger traffic
    • ASK: Available Seat Kilometers, measuring available passenger capacity
    • PLF: Passenger Load Factor, indicating the percentage of available seats filled.
  • IATA statistics encompass international and domestic scheduled air traffic for member and non-member airlines.
  • Regional market shares for total passenger traffic in 2022, based on RPK, are distributed as follows: Asia-Pacific 22.1%, Europe 30.8%, North America 28.8%, Middle East 9.8%, Latin America 6.4%, and Africa 2.1%.

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