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Looking ahead to the new year: Airports’ sustainable recovery

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, Director General of ACI World, looks back over the past two years and explains his outlook on the recovery and the importance placing sustainability at the core of the airport sector’s business strategies.

In just a few months it will be two years since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Since then, daily life across the globe has changed with unprecedented impacts on the global economy, trade, and mobility. Practically all aspects of economic and social activity were disrupted — and many still are.

Air transport has remained one of the hardest hit global industries in 2020, and its restart has been slow, uneven, and challenging. The implications for the aviation sector are far reaching and the pandemic will likely affect aviation businesses, passengers, and airports for years to come.
Despite this, there is cause for some positivity. At the time of writing, several major markets are gradually reopening their borders to vaccinated travellers. The progressive reopening of borders in more and more countries sparked optimism that this trend could galvanise the recovery of the industry into next year. We will certainly be watching this closely as the new year begins.

Economic impact of COVID-19

Even with the positive news of certain markets re‑opening their borders, global passenger traffic in 2021 is still expected to reach only half of what it was in 2019, with total traffic for 2021 forecast to be only 4.6 billion of the 9.2 billion passengers served two years ago. Domestic passenger traffic continues to recover faster than the international market, expecting to reach more than 3.1 billion passengers by the end of the year, a level corresponding to 58.5 per cent of that achieved in 2019.
The pandemic, however, had a less severe impact on global air cargo volume, largely driven by the requirement for personal protective equipment (PPE) and the increase in online retail. Nevertheless, global air cargo declined by 9.6 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019, with 108 million tonnes handled in 2020.

We estimate that the world’s airports are expected to lose more than $111 billion in revenues this year, $3 billion more than projected in the previous assessment in July 2021. While the new data worsens the expected annual financial performance of the world’s airports, especially for the fourth quarter of the year, ACI still expects each quarter of 2021 to show an improvement compared to the previous one.

In this context, it is important to keep in mind that the aviation industry is an ecosystem and the financial impact of the pandemic on the industry is, and continues to be, extremely challenging for the whole sector—particularly as most of the stakeholders of the supply chain received limited or no government support. Airports are no different. Overall, the sector needs to work together to address the needs of all parts involved to continue to provide sustainable social and economic development for the communities we serve. Working together with our partners in this ecosystem will be key for the industry recovery.

Outlook on recovery

Under the current projection and considering the slower than expected fourth quarter of 2021, global domestic passenger traffic is still expected to reach 2019 levels in late 2023, but global international passenger traffic will require an additional year and will reach 2019 levels only by the end of the third quarter of 2024.

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