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IATA: Airline industry statistics confirm 2020 was worst year on record

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) published the IATA World Air Transport Statistics (WATS) report with performance numbers for 2020, illustrating the destructive consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on global air transport during that year.

  • In 2020, 1.8 billion passengers flew, a 60.2 percent decline from the 4.5 billion who flew in 2019;
  • Year on year, industry-wide air travel demand (measured in revenue passenger-kilometres, or RPKs) fell by 65.9 percent;
  • International passenger demand (RPKs) fell by 75.6 percent from the previous year;
  • Domestic air passenger demand (RPKs) fell by 48.8 percent in 2019 compared to 2018;
  • Air connection fell by more than half in 2020, with the number of routes connecting airports dropping drastically at the start of the crisis and plummeting by more than 60% year on year in April 2020;
  • Passenger revenues in the business plummeted by 69 percent to US$189 billion in 2020, with net losses totaling US$126.4 billion;
  • The drop in air passengers transported in 2020 was the biggest since worldwide RPKs were first reported in 1950.

Willie Walsh, the director general of IATA, stated, “2020 was a year that we’d all like to forget.” However, an examination of the year’s performance statistics reveals an incredible story of resilience.

At the height of the crisis in April 2020, governments closed borders or established severe quarantines, grounding 66 percent of the world’s commercial air transport fleet. A million jobs were lost. In addition, the industry’s losses for the year totaled US$126 billion.

Many governments recognized the importance of aviation and contributed financial and other forms of assistance. However, it was the quick efforts of airlines and the dedication of our workers that saw the airline sector through its most challenging year in history.”

WATS’s key airline performance numbers for 2020


  • Airlines carried 1.8 billion passengers on scheduled services, a 60.2 percent reduction from 2019;
  • In 2020, there was an average loss of US$71.7 per passenger, resulting in total net losses of US$126.4 billion;
  • In terms of ASKs (available seat kilometres), worldwide airline capacity fell by 56.7 percent, with international capacity suffering the most, falling by 68.3 percent;
  • The systemwide passenger load factor fell to 65.1 percent in 2020, down from 82.5 percent the previous year;
  • The Middle East area lost the most passenger traffic, with a 71.5 percent decline in RPKs compared to 2019, followed by Europe (-69.7 percent) and Africa (-68.5 percent);
  • For the first time in history, China became the largest domestic market in 2020, as air travel rebounded faster in their domestic market following their attempts to regulate COVID-19.

The regional rankings (based on the total number of passengers carried on scheduled services by airlines registered in that region) are as follows:

  • Asia-Pacific: 780.7 million passengers, a 53.4 percent reduction from the region’s passengers in 2019.
  • North America: 401.7 million passengers, a 60.8 percent decrease from 2019.
  • Europe: 389.9 million travelers, a 67.4 percent decrease from 2019.
  • Latin America: 123.6 million passengers, a 60.6 percent decrease from 2019.
  • Middle East: 76.8 million travelers, a 67.6 percent reduction from 2019.
  • Africa: 34.3 million travelers, a 65.7 percent decrease from 2019.

The top five airlines in terms of total scheduled passenger kilometers flown were as follows:

  • 1 American Airlines (124 billion)
  • 2 China Southern Airlines (110.7 billion)
  • 3 Delta Air Lines (106.5 billion)
  • 4 United Airlines (100.2 billion)
  • 5 China Eastern Airlines (88.7 billion)

The top five route areas by passenger demand (RPKs), with the largest drop being seen in routes within the Far East:

  • 1 Within Europe (290.3 million, down 70.7% from 2019)
  • 2 Europe – North America (122.9 million, decreased 80.4% from 2019)
  • 3 Within Far East (117.3 million, a decrease of 84.1% from 2019)
  • 4 Europe – Far East (115.3 million, a decrease of 79% from 2019)
  • 5 Middle East – Far East (104 million, down 73.6% from 2019)

The top five domestic passenger airport-pairs were all in Asia and outperformed top international routes as domestic recovery returned faster, particularly in China:

  • 1 Jeju – Seoul Gimpo (10.2 million, up 35.1% over 2019)
  • 2 Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City (5.9 million, an increase of 54.3% from 2019)
  • 3 Shanghai-Hongqiao – Shenzhen (3.7 million, up 43.4% from 2019)
  • 4 Beijing-Capital – Shanghai-Hongqiao (3.6 million, increased by 11.8% from 2019)
  • 5 Guangzhou – Shanghai-Hongqiao (3.5 million, up 41.2% from 2019)

The top five nationalities traveling by air (international) were:

  • 1 United States (45.7 million, or 9.7% of all passengers)
  • 2 United Kingdom (40.8 million, or 8.6% of all passengers)
  • 3 Germany (30.8 million, or 6.5% of all passengers)
  • 4 France (23.3 million, or 4.9% of all passengers)
  • 5 India (17.4 million, or 3.7% of all passengers)


Air freight was the bright spot in air transport in 2020, as the sector adapted to keep products moving—including vaccinations, personal protective equipment (PPE), and critical medical supplies—despite a large loss in capacity from passenger plane bellies.

Available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs) in the industry declined 21.4 percent year on year in 2020.

As a result, the industry-wide freight load factor increased by 7.0 percentage points to 53.8 percent. This is the most recent addition to the IATA series, which began in 1990.

Cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs) in the industry had returned to pre-crisis levels by the end of the year. However, the year-on-year fall in cargo demand (CTKs) in 2020 was the highest since the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, at a sizable 9.7 percent.

The top five airlines ranked by scheduled cargo tonne-kilometres (CTKs) flown were:

  • 1 Federal Express (19.7 billion)
  • 2 United Parcel Service (14.4 billion)
  • 3 Qatar Airways (13.7 billion)
  • 4 Emirates (9.6 billion)
  • 5 Cathay Pacific Airways (8.1 billion)

Airline Alliances

Star Alliance maintained its position as the largest airline alliance in 2020 with 18.7 percent of total scheduled traffic (in RPKs), followed by SkyTeam (16.3 percent) and oneworld (12.7 percent).

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