Airlines passenger numbers fall 66pc on Covid storms


A KQ Dreamliner aircraft. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The global resurgence of the coronavirus and the closing of borders has hampered the air travel recovery with the passenger numbers dropping by 66 percent as at December last year, compared with the same period in 2019, according to aviation agency.

The decline that the International Air Travel Association said (IATA) is the sharpest in aviation history, is a result of the second wave of the Covid-19, which has seen airlines suspend some of the routes because of tight restrictions, even as the agency warns that the first quarter of the year will remain extremely challenging for the airline industry.

“The revenue passenger kilometres (RPK) rebound has been impacted by a sharp spike in Covid-19 cases and new travel restrictions. Forward bookings have been falling sharply since late December, which points to a challenging start for 2021,” said IATA.

Kenya Airways has not been spared by the pandemic having suspended flights to France this month and cut the New York frequencies from two to one in what the management attributed to restrictions that have seen demand for travel go down.

“The fragile travel industry has seen a worsening dip in demand due to implementation, and in some cases, reinstatement of travel restrictions in various countries in response to the second wave of Covid-19,” said KQ chief executive officer Allan Kilavuka, noting that most EU countries imposing travel conditions are also limiting travel from Africa.

“The US has implemented Covid-19 testing as a requirement. Rwanda, Burundi, and the UK are implementing quarantine requirements,” said Mr Kilavuka.

IATA last year warned that the quarantine measures put in place by different countries had discouraged passengers from flying and urged governments to use an alternative measures such as screening at the ports of entry.

Countries like the United Arab Emirates have suspended travel from Nigeria on direct and indirect flights.

Mr Kilavuka said KQ has responded by reducing capacity deployment in some key markets such as the UK and the US.

“We have reduced our operations to JFK from the planned twice weekly to once weekly, and we continue to monitor the situation. We are also using smaller aircraft than earlier planned to operate routes such as Johannesburg and Lagos,” he said.

IATA says the year 2020 brought an unprecedented challenge to the airline industry in a form of closed borders, strict travel controls, and depressed travel confidence – all effects of the pandemic.

The agency noted that all regions were severely affected last year with the Middle Eastern airlines reporting the sharpest RPK decline at -72.2 percent due to their reliance on long-haul international routes, which are still largely closed.

IATA says although vaccine rollout is good news for air travel, the immunization has been slow so far and that it will take time before its impact is reflected in passenger numbers.

“For now, willingness to travel is low – at least based on the evidence from bookings for future travel which were down 70 percent year on year in January,” said IATA.

Carriers in Africa posted the lowest international RPK decline of all regions in December at 68.8 percent year on year and also showed the most resilient outcome for the year as a whole, at -69.8 percent as the region benefitted from relatively less strict international travel restrictions compared to the rest of the world.