Air Travel, Government of India, India
 

Data: After a modest recovery, domestic air passenger traffic drops significantly in April & May 2021

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The domestic air passenger traffic has been in a recovery mode since June 2020 though the growth has been modest. From around 20 lakh passengers in June 2020, the traffic increased to 78.2 lakh in March 2021. However, with the second wave of COVID-19, April & May 2021 witnessed a significant drop in the traffic with May 2021 reporting only 21.2 lakh passengers.

One of the important measures taken by the Government of India after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, was the restrictions placed on international and domestic Air travel. 

Domestic Commercial Airlines were grounded from 25 March 2020, for a period of two months. The services resumed from 20 May 2020, with certain restrictions.  These restrictions were gradually lifted in the ensuing months. Because of the severe restrictions on the mobility of people within & across nations, the Aviation sector is among the worst hit during the pandemic. 

In an earlier story, we had highlighted that despite the resumption of Domestic flight services from May 2020, the Domestic passenger traffic during June & July 2020 was lower when compared to the same months in 2019. The overall Domestic Passenger Traffic fell by around 58% during the period – January to July’2020, compared to the same period in 2019.  In further analysis, it was observed that the domestic air traffic improved in the second half of 2020, and in November 2020, the domestic air traffic reached 50% of the November 2019 levels. 

Starting March 2021, India experienced a devastating second wave of COVID-19 pandemic. While there was no nationwide lockdown like during the first wave, individual states have responded with their own measures. Lockdowns, travel restrictions within and across the states, etc. were imposed, which have also impacted the Air-travel. In this story, we look at the recent trends in Domestic Air-travel in the country, especially considering the second wave of COVID-19 infection. 

Domestic Air Passenger traffic during May 2021 fell to less than 1/3rd of the traffic before the second wave

In an earlier story, we had observed that the domestic air passenger traffic improved post the lockdown measures imposed in 2020. In November 2020, 63.4 lakh passengers traveled through Domestic airlines, which was about 50% of the domestic air-passenger traffic of November 2019. 

The number of passengers continued to increase in December 2020 and during the first quarter of 2021. In March 2021, the passenger traffic was 78.22 lakhs. Although this was less than the February 2021 figure of 78.27 lakhs, it was still higher than the passenger traffic during March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. 

However, March 2021 marked the reversal of growth witnessed after the relaxation of lockdown measures imposed in 2020.  The domestic air passenger traffic dipped continuously in April & May 2021, owing to the severity of the second wave. 

The lockdown measures imposed in various states since April 2021 had its bearing on domestic air travel and is reflected in the lower numbers reported for that month. During May 2021, with stricter lockdown measures, the Domestic Air passenger traffic fell to 21.15 lakhs compared to 57. 25 lakhs during April 2021. Compared to February’21 i.e., before the onset of the second wave, the passenger traffic in May 2021 was only about 27%, less than 1/3rd.  The May 2021 number is approximately 17.5%, i.e., less than 1/5th of the passenger traffic witnessed in May 2019. 

Domestic Air Passenger Traffic during Jan-May 2021 less than same period in 2020 

The total domestic air traffic during the current year (i.e., by the end of May 2021) is 312.33 lakhs. As highlighted earlier, the growing trend reported during the first quarter of 2021, was impacted by the measures taken because of the COVID-19 second wave. 

The combined domestic air traffic for the two months of April & May 2021 is only slightly better than the reported numbers for March 2021. The total domestic passenger traffic for 2021 up until the end of May 2021 is less than the traffic reported during the same period in 2020. The traffic during this five-month period in 2020 was 330.9 lakhs. It must be noted that this period in 2020 also includes April & May 2020 during which domestic air travel was suspended almost completely. 

While the drop in domestic air travel during April & May 2021 could be because of the lockdown measures in many states, the slower growth in the first quarter also contributed towards lower overall numbers. 

With the fall in COVID-19 cases and many of the states lifting the restrictions, domestic air passenger traffic is expected to increase. The extent of recovery remains to be seen. 

Sharper decline in the Passenger traffic of Private Air-carriers during May 2021 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the share of the ‘Private Air carriers’ ranged between 87-88% of the total domestic air passenger traffic. Except for May 2020, when Air travel was just re-instated, the share of private carriers remained intact. In fact, their share improved to around 90 % by December 2020.

We have highlighted that there has been slow growth in the total passenger traffic since the beginning of 2021 and dropped drastically in April & May 2021. This is largely due to the reduction in passenger traffic of private carriers. The share of private carriers in domestic air traffic dropped to around 79.8% in May 2021. The number of passengers who traveled in private airlines fell from 50.4 lakhs in April 2021 to 16.87 lakhs in May 2021. 

Though Air India also witnessed a drop in domestic passenger traffic, it is not as drastic as in the case of private carriers. 

Among the private carriers, IndiGo airlines with more than half the domestic air traffic share was majorly impacted by the lockdown. Though they were able to retain the share of more than 50% market share, the volume of passengers dropped significantly in April & May 2021. The increase in the market share of Air India is at the cost of private air carriers other than IndiGo.

Source: DGCA’s Air Traffic Report – May’21

Fall in Air-passenger traffic observed across many countries 

Apart from India, many countries have reported reduced domestic Air-traffic numbers after the COVID-19 pandemic. With only 2019 data being available on the World Bank’s website, we relied on the data available in the public domain for other countries for analyzing the 2020 & 2021 numbers. 

  • In South Africa, the domestic passenger traffic during 2020-21 across the major airports ranged between 20-30% of the passenger traffic in 2019-20. The trends so far for 2021-22 also indicate lower numbers, though it is still early days. 
  • In the USA, after a recovery starting May 2020, early trends indicate a slight fall in passenger traffic in January 2021. 

The information is the cumulative figure for both international & Domestic air travel. As per the information updated on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Domestic enplanements (those who have boarded the flight) in January 2021 fell by nearly 60.5% compared to January 2020.  

  • As per a communication released by the Malaysian Aviation Commission(MAVCOM), there is a 91% decline in the number of passengers using air services during the first quarter of 2021 compared to Q1 of 2020. Although recovery was earlier forecasted, in view of the surge in COVID-19 numbers, MAVCOM has revised its forecasts and expects a contraction between 22.9 and 29.1% YoY in 2021. 
  • As per the data available with the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE), Australia’s domestic air passenger traffic is showing an upward trend after a fall experienced during the first quarter of 2020. There is a 69.9% decline in Passenger traffic for the year ending April 2021 compared to the year ending April 2020. 

A long road of recovery lies ahead for Domestic aviation in the country 

As the data indicates, there has been a slow recovery in Domestic Air-travel after the services were resumed in late May 2020.  However, the second wave of COVID-19 has hampered this growth resulting in lower passenger numbers. With most of the states relaxing lockdown norms, the domestic air traffic is expected to recover in the coming months though this recovery is expected to be slow. 

It might be quite a while before the air traffic reaches the pre-COVID-19 levels. Even the slow recovery expected over the next few months is possible only if there are no further disruptions in the form of a third wave. Since air travel is considered to be risky for the spread of COVID-19, the sector will remain highly sensitive to the way the pandemic is evolving. 

Change in preferences & behaviours in a post-COVID-19 world i.e., preference for working online, online meetings & conferences, reduced preference for holiday travel are the other challenges that plague the sector. In view of these, the road to recovery for the aviation industry is expected to be long & arduous.  

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