The aviation sector is one of the worst affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Air traffic data from DGCA indicates that while there is an improvement in numbers, Domestic Air Passenger traffic is still significantly lower than in 2019. The contribution of the top-10 and top-20 routes to the overall traffic has also reduced over the years.
The Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) releases reports on domestic passenger traffic and the traffic on various domestic routes on a monthly basis. According to these reports, the aviation sector in India handled more than 10 crore passengers each year prior to the pandemic. However, the sector was among the worst hit due to the pandemic, especially during the first wave in 2020 when the services were all grounded. Since then, different waves of the pandemic, lockdown measures and the additional expenses for safety-related measures have affected the recovery of the sector. Coupled with these, people, in general, had also limited their travel. However, the restrictions are almost fully relaxed now with a major share of the population being fully vaccinated. With tourism, work from the office, physical meetings resuming, the aviation sector is expected to witness a recovery in the coming months and the traffic numbers might reach the pre-pandemic levels very soon.
COVID-19 had significantly hit the aviation sector
The total number of passengers who travelled on domestic flights was on the rise before the outbreak of COVID-19. A total of 11.7 crore passengers were handled by domestic airlines in 2017 which increased to 14.4 crores in 2019, an increase of 23.1%. However, in 2020, this dropped by 56.3% to 6.3 crores. In 2021, the domestic passenger traffic improved by 33% and reached 8.38 crores. However, the total domestic air passenger traffic in 2021 was still 45% less than the traffic in 2019.
Three months into 2022, the number of passengers on domestic routes is 2.48 crores. With 9 months remaining in 2022, the total domestic air passenger traffic in 2022 is expected to comfortably cross the 2021 levels even if the current trend holds.
The year-on-year comparison of the domestic air passenger traffic in the first three months of each year (January to March) reveals that the domestic passenger traffic has improved in 2022 by 6% as compared to 2021. Between 2018 and 2020, the annual average domestic air passenger traffic was 3.4 crores in the first three months which means that the current passenger traffic in 2022 is at least 1 crore below the pre-pandemic levels.
For the first time in 20 months, more than 1 crore passengers travelled in November 2021
The monthly domestic air passenger traffic data since January 2017 shows that there was a consistent increase in traffic before the onset of the pandemic. The average monthly traffic was 94 lakhs in the first three quarters of 2017, which crossed 1 crore in the last quarter of the year. Between March and November 2018, the average number of passengers was over 1.14 crore which crossed 1.25 crores in December 2018 and January 2019. The average monthly traffic was over 1.2 crores in 2019. Since then, the average monthly domestic traffic dropped to below 70 lakhs in 2020 and 2021.
December 2019 witnessed the highest ever monthly traffic of over 1.3 crores. This is more than the total number of domestic air passengers during the six months of April and September 2020. A steep decline in passenger traffic in the periods- March and August 2020, and April and July 2021, are evident attributed to the first and second waves of the pandemic.
Usually, the months of December and January witness the most traffic than the rest of the months due to the holiday & festival season. However, in January 2022, the number of passengers was the lowest since August 2021 and had dropped by almost 43% as compared to December 2021. Compared to January 2021, the number of passengers carried in January 2022 was 17%. This can be attributed to the third wave of pandemic due to the Omicron variant. The number of passengers crossed 1 crore again in March 2022.
After the onset of the pandemic, for the first time after 20 months after February 2020, the number of passengers crossed 1 crore in November 2021. The rebound to normal passenger traffic has been much faster after the third wave compared to the previous waves.
The contribution of the top 10 and top 20 routes to the total has declined over the years
The DGCA also provides monthly domestic city pair-wise data. That is, it provides data on the number of passengers commuting to and from a pair of cities, say city 1 and city 2. For this analysis, the total number of passengers commuting between city 1 and city 2 in a specific year has been calculated by adding the total number of passengers commuting to and from the two cities through the 12 months.
In 2017, the domestic passenger traffic across the top 20 routes accounted for 42.5% of the total domestic passenger traffic. However, since then, the share of the top 20 routes in the overall traffic has declined. In 2018, the top 20 routes accounted for only 39% of the traffic which dropped to 32.7% in 2021. In 2022, these routes have accounted only for less than 20% of the total traffic. The latest data on city pair-wise traffic is that of February 2022 and hence the data for 2022 is for the months of January & February only.
Likewise, the share of the traffic of the top 10 routes has dropped from 27% in 2017 to 25% in 2018, and to less than 21% in the following years. In 2022, these routes accounted for only 12.5% of the total. The decline in the share of the top 10 and top 20 routes may be attributed to the increase in the number of routes & the number of cities that are now connected by air. As of February 2022, 528 routes were being operated, up from 311 routes in January 2017, an increase of 41%.
‘Delhi – Mumbai’ and ‘Delhi – Bengaluru’ are the most popular routes
The top 10 routes with the greatest domestic air passenger traffic each year from 2017 to 2022 are depicted in the following chart. The data clearly indicates that the routes connecting either Delhi or Mumbai are the most popular. Since 2017, traffic between Delhi & Mumbai has always been the greatest followed by the traffic between Delhi & Bengaluru. Mumbai- Bengaluru, which used to account for the third-highest traffic in 2017 and 2018, stands at the 9th and 10th position in 2021 and 2022. Other routes which have always been among the top 10 are Delhi & Hyderabad, and Delhi & Kolkata. Except in 2019 and 2020, Mumbai & Goa has been in the top 10 as well. Since 2020, Delhi – Srinagar route has been in the top 10.
While the pandemic severely affected the sector, it remains to be seen if the government’s Regional Connectivity Scheme – RCS Udan helps increase the domestic air passenger traffic in times to come.
Featured Image: Domestic Air Passenger traffic