MIAMI – IATA has published its World Air Transport Statistics (WATS) for 2020, a year termed the worst on record so far and whose performance depicts the worldwide devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the air transport industry.

In detail, the drop in passenger number is dramatic: 4.5bn in 2019 against 1.8bn in 2020, a staggering minus 60.2%. The global industry-wide demand for air travel, measured in Revenue Passenger-Kilometer (RPK) followed the trend and dropped by 65.9% year-on-year.

The same fate was true for the international passenger demand, whose RPK went down by 75.6% compared to 2019 figures.

Image: IATA

Domestic air travel demand did not fare better and stood at 48.8% of the results obtained in 2019. Connectivity was also at a loss and went down by more than half in 2020 showing a dramatic fall of more than 60% when compared to April 2019.

Total revenue linked to passenger traffic registered a fall of 69% and amounted to US$189bn with a net loss of US$126.4bn.

Chart: IATA

The 2020 performances in air passenger traffic have shown the largest decline since the RPK count was adopted somewhere around 1950. IATA’s Director-General, Willie Walsh, commented on the 2020 industry disaster by defining it as “a year that we would all like to forget” but deemed it was also a “story of perseverance.”

Chart: IATA

The global commercial air transport saw 66% of its fleets grounded at the worst moment of the crisis in April 2020 when borders were closed and travel severely hampered by restrictions of all kinds.

The situation burned millions of jobs as well as US$126bnn in losses, partially offset by government aids, both financial and in kind.

Chart: IATA

Fortunately, in the air transport dark sky of 2020, there was a bright spot and that was air freight which quickly adapted to keep goods moving notwithstanding the capacity drop linked to the lack of belly space in canceled passenger flights.

Airlines kept vital products like vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE), and medical supplies.

Image: IATA

The total cargo capacity, measured in Available Cargo Tonnes-Kilometer (ACTK) went down by 21.4% on a year-on-year basis thus creating a cargo space shortage and a total load factor progressing by 7% to 53.8%, the highest value recorded by IKATA since 1990.

By the end of 2020, the global Cargo Tonne-Kilometer (CTK) was again closed to the pre-Covid levels but the 9.7% downtrend in cargo demand remained the largest ever recorded since the 2009 global financial crisis. 

Willie Walsh praised the airlines by recognizing that “the rapid action and the commitment of our people saw the airlines industry through the most difficult year in its history.”

Chart: IATA

Key 2020 Airline Performance Figures from WATS:


  • Systemwide, airlines carried 1.8 billion passengers on scheduled services, a decrease of 60.2% over 2019
  • On average, there was a US$71.7 loss incurred per passenger in 2020, corresponding to net losses of US$126.4bn in total
  • Measured in ASKs (available seat kilometers), global airline capacity plummeted by 56.7%, with international capacity being hit the hardest with a reduction of 68.3%
  • Systemwide passenger load factor dropped to 65.1% in 2020, compared to 82.5% the year prior
  • The Middle East region suffered the largest proportion of loss for passenger traffic* with a drop of 71.5% in RPKs versus 2019, followed by Europe (-69.7%) and the Africa region (-68.5%)
  • China became the largest domestic market in 2020 for the first time on record, as air travel rebounded faster in their domestic market following their efforts to control COVID-19
  • The regional rankings (based on total passengers carried on scheduled services by airlines registered in that region) are:
    1. Asia-Pacific: 780.7 million passengers, a decrease of 53.4% compared to the region’s passengers in 2019
    2. North America: 401.7 million passengers, down 60.8% over 2019
    3. Europe: 389.9 million passengers, down 67.4% over 2019
    4. Latin America: 123.6 million passengers, down 60.6% over 2019
    5. Middle East: 76.8 million passengers, a decrease of 67.6% over 2019
    6. Africa: 34.3 million passengers, down 65.7% over 2019
  • The top five airlines ranked by total scheduled passenger kilometers flown, were:
1American Airlines(124 billion)
2China Southern Airlines(110.7 billion)
3Delta Air Lines(106.5 billion)
4United Airlines(100.2 billion)
5China 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:
1Within Europe(290.3 million, down 70.7% from 2019)
2Europe – North America     (122.9 million, decreased 80.4% from 2019)
3Within the Far East (117.3 million, a decrease of 84.1% from 2019)
4Europe – Far East  (115.3 million, a decrease of 79% from 2019)
5Middle 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:
1Jeju – Seoul Gimpo    (10.2 million, up 35.1% over 2019)
2Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City    (5.9 million, an increase of 54.3% from 2019)
3Shanghai-Hongqiao – Shenzhen(3.7 million, up 43.4% from 2019)
4Beijing-Capital – Shanghai-Hongqiao  (3.6 million, increased by 11.8% from 2019)
5Guangzhou – Shanghai-Hongqiao(3.5 million, up 41.2% from 2019)
  • The top five nationalities*** traveling by air (international) were:
1United States(45.7 million, or 9.7% of all passengers)
2United Kingdom(40.8 million, or 8.6% of all passengers)
3Germany     (30.8 million, or 6.5% of all passengers)
4France (23.3 million, or 4.9% of all passengers)
5India (17.4 million, or 3.7% of all passengers)


  • Air freight was the bright spot in air transport for 2020, as the market adapted to keep goods moving—including vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE) and vital medical supplies—despite the massive drop in capacity from the bellies of passenger aircraft (more on that below).
  • Industry-wide available cargo tonne-kilometers (ACTKs) fell 21.4% year-on-year in 2020
  • This led to a capacity crunch, with the industry-wide cargo load factor up 7.0 percentage points to 53.8%. This is the highest value in the IATA series started in 1990.
  • At the end of the year, industry-wide cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs) had returned close to pre-crisis values. However, the yearly decline in cargo demand (CTKs) was still the largest since the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, at a sizeable 9.7% year-on-year in 2020.
  • The top five airlines ranked by scheduled cargo tonne-kilometers (CTKs) flown were:
1Federal Express(19.7 billion)
2United Parcel Service     (14.4 billion)
3Qatar Airways  (13.7 billion)
4Emirates (9.6 billion)
5Cathay Pacific Airways (8.1 billion)

In a year when demand for air freight capacity increased exponentially in the second quarter, as governments booked out flights to carry PPE and forwarders struggled to find capacity, IATA said a lack of bellies “led to a capacity crunch, with the industry-wide cargo load factor up 7.1 percentage points to 53.9%. This is the highest value in the IATA series started in 1990.”

Rates for the year, though, were almost 56% higher than in 2019, indicating that it was, in reality, a sellers’ market and that flights were unlikely to have been only half-full. Capacity was 21.2 percent lower than the previous year.

However, as points out, the issue stems from IATA’s weight-based load factor estimates. However, PPE and e-commerce, which were significant commodities in 2020, bulk up an aircraft before it is weighed.

Frustrated airfreight shippers will be surprised then to learn that cargo aircraft were barely half-full in 2020, according to IATA data.

The outlet cites the following, “Using industry’s traditional way of measuring load factors solely by weight, the average load factor for September 2020 was 47%, according to Clive [Data Services, which considers both weight and volume]. However, the same data from airlines, calculated taking into account both weight and volume, reveals a more accurate and realistic dynamic load factor of 70%.”

Airline Alliances

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

Featured image: Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner White Tail. Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways