The International Air Transport Association (Iata) on Wednesday urged governments to accelerate the easing of travel restrictions “as travellers pose no greater risk for Covid-19 spread than already exists” in the general population.

The global aviation body that represents 290 airlines across 120 countries made the call as it released dismal passenger traffic results for 2021 that showed demand (revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) falling by 58.4 per cent compared to the full year of 2019.

Middle Eastern airlines’ annual passenger volumes in 2021 were even bleaker at 71.6 per cent below 2019. Annual capacity fell 57.7 per cent and load factor dropped 25.1 percentage points to 51.1 per cent December’s traffic was down 51.2v compared to December 2019, a solid pick-up from a 54.3 per cent drop in November.

Iata called for accelerating the relaxation of travel restrictions as Covid-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage. It urged governments to remove all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine. It also advocated for enabling quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travelers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result.

“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travelers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of Covid-19. The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations. The billions spent testing travelers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems,” said Willie Walsh, Iata’s director-general.

Iata cited a recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health which demonstrated the extremely limited impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron. The study found if the UK’s extra measures with respect to Omicron had been in place from the beginning of November (prior to the identification of the variant), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with three per cent fewer cases.

More governments need to follow the UK’s lead. “Accelerating the removal of travel restrictions will be a major step towards living with the virus,” said the Iata chief.

Reaction to Omicron

Walsh said the over-reaction of many governments to Omicron proved the blueprint’s key point—the need for simple, predictable and practical means of living with the virus that don’t constantly default to de-connecting the world.

“We have seen that targeting disproportionate measures at travelers has economic and social costs but very limited public health benefits. We must aim at a future where international travel faces no greater restriction than visiting a shop, attending a public gathering or riding the bus,” said Walsh.

“Whatever the rules are for vaccination requirements, the industry will be able to manage them with digital solutions, the leader of which is the IataTravel Pass. It’s a matured solution being implemented across a growing number of global networks,” said Walsh.

Despite a 54 per cent plunge in 2021 compared to 2019, global passenger traffic results represented an improvement as against 2020, when full-year RPKs were down 65.8 per cent versus 2019. Total traffic for December 2021 was 45.1 per cent below the same month in 2019, improved from the 47 per cent contraction in November.

International passenger demand in 2021 was 75.5 per cent below 2019 levels. Capacity, (measured in available seat kilometers or ASKs) declined 65.3 per cent and load factor fell 24.0 percentage points to 58.0 per cent.

Domestic demand in 2021 was down 28.2 per cent compared to 2019. Capacity contracted by 19.2 per cent and load factor dropped 9.3 percentage points to 74.3 per cent.

Air cargo demand up

Middle Eastern carriers reported an increase in international demand for air cargo of 10.6 per cent in 2021 compared to 2019 and a fall in the international capacity of 10.1 per cent. Globally, demand for air cargo increased by 6.9 per cent in 2021, compared to 2019 (pre-Covid levels) and 18.7 per cent compared to 2020 following a strong performance in December 2021, Iata said.

This was the second biggest improvement in year-on-year demand since Iata started to monitor cargo performance in 1990 (behind 2010’s 20.6 per cent gain), outpacing the 9.8 per cent rise in global goods trade by 8.9 percentage points.

In the Middle East, cargo demand growth decelerated towards the year-end, partly driven by a downward trend in volumes on the large Middle East-Asia route. In December airlines in the region recorded a 5.7 per cent increase in international demand compared to December 2019. International capacity decreased by 9.2 per cent in December compared to the same month in 2019.

“Air cargo had a stellar year in 2021. For many airlines, it provided a vital source of revenue as passenger demand remained in the doldrums due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. Growth opportunities, however, were lost due to the pressures of labour shortages and constraints across the logistics system. Overall, economic conditions do point towards a strong 2022,” said Willie Walsh, Iata’s director-general.


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