World airlines have called for harmonised travel protocol and removal of barriers to boost passenger traffic demand that is currently stuck at about 50 per cent of pre-COVID era.

The airlines, under the aegis of International Air Transport Association (IATA), said that safe air travel and global economies were better off without COVID-19 travel restrictions in most countries.

IATA’s full-year global passenger traffic results for 2021 showed that demand (revenue passenger kilometers or RPKs) fell by 58.4 per cent compared to the full year of 2019. This represented an improvement compared to 2020, when full year RPKs were down 65.8 per cent versus 2019.

Total traffic for the month of December 2021 was 45.1 per cent below the same month in 2019, improved from the 47.0 per cent contraction in November, as monthly demand continued to recover despite concerns over Omicron. Capacity was down 37.6 per cent and load factor fell 9.8 percentage points to 72.3 per cent.

IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh, noted that Omicron travel restrictions slowed the recovery in international demand by about two weeks in December.

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International demand has been recovering at a pace of about four percentage points/month compared to 2019. Without Omicron, the industry would have expected international demand for the month of December to improve to around 56.5 per cent below 2019 levels.

“Instead, volumes rose marginally to 58.4 per cent below 2019 from -60.5 per cent in November. Overall travel demand strengthened in 2021. That trend continued into December despite travel restrictions in the face of Omicron. That says a lot about the strength of passenger confidence and the desire to travel.

“The challenge for 2022 is to reinforce that confidence by normalising travel. While international travel remains far from normal in many parts of the world, there is momentum in the right direction.

“Recently, France and Switzerland announced significant easing of measures. And last week, the UK removed all testing requirements for vaccinated travellers. We hope others will follow their important lead, particularly in Asia where several key markets remain in virtual isolation,” Walsh said.

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In the African region, airlines’ international traffic fell 65.2 per cent last year compared to 2019, which was the best performance among regions. Capacity dropped 56.7 per cent, and load factor sank 14.1 percentage points to 57.3 per cent. Demand for the month of December was 60.5 per cent below the year-ago period, a deterioration from the 56.5 per cent decline in November, owing to the impact of government travel restrictions in response to Omicron.

“As COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage, it is past time for governments to evolve their responses away from travel restrictions that repeatedly have been shown to be ineffective in preventing the spread of the disease, but which inflict enormous harm on lives and economies. A New Year’s resolution for governments should be to focus on building population immunity and stop placing travel barriers in the way of a return to normality,” Walsh said.