Charting the European Aviation recovery: 2021 COVID-19 impacts and 2022 outlook

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2021 was the year aviation hoped to get back on its feet after t he catastrophic pandemic impacts of 2020. The Think
Paper latest aviation data report by EUROCONTROL shows the cumulative impacts of this year’s partial recovery on all aspects of
European aviation. Mass vaccinations and the EU Digital COVID Certificate helped drive a strong summer traffic bounce
that has endured despite Omicron and rising infection levels, proving the sector’s resilience as we enter 2022.

EUROCONTROL argues that traffic started the year at 36% of 2019 levels in January, but recovered solidly over the summer thanks to mass vaccinations and the EU Digital COVID Certificate to around 70%, hitting a two-year high on 27 August 2021 of 26,773 flights. Holiday flights stretched into autumn with traffic rising to 81% in late October, and despite Omicron and additional health and safety requirements for many destinations, December saw traffic at 78% of 2019 levels. Overall, annual traffic across the European aviation network reached 56% of 2019 levels.

They expect that this growth will not unwind in 2022, with traffic still on track to recover by year-end 2022 to 70-90% of 2019 levels – even if right now the evolving pandemic is pushing traffic much closer to our baseline forecast, not our most optimistic one.

However, the financial and sociologic impacts remain huge, and not vastly better than the first year of the pandemic. Around 1.5 billion passengers fewer are expected, based on ACI estimates, to have flown from Europe’s airports in 2021 than 2019, only marginally better than 2020’s 1.7 billion loss, and with only around 55% of pre-pandemic flight choice across Europe. In total, there were 4.9 million fewer flights across the EUROCONTROL network in 2021 compared to 2019, vs. 6.1 million down in 2020. Similarly, 2021 saw €18.5 billion in European airline losses, compared with €22.2 billion last year.

For Eamonn Brennan, EUROCONTROL Director General, “the situation remains right now enormously challenging. Traffic may currently stand at 78% of 2019 levels, but the unfolding Omicron situation is pushing many of Europe’s top airlines to cut capacity in January by up to 30% – and in parallel, we are starting to see some flights cancelled due to COVID-19 exposure among crew members.

Nevertheless, I remain confident that 2022 will build on the resilience aviation showed in 2021 to a crisis that had paralysed economies the year before. As soon as the situation improves, we expect to see a rapid rebound that will bring European aviation a lot closer to 2019 traffic levels. At the same time, this year all actors must urgently accelerate their plans to make aviation sustainable, building back sustainably with major investment in new technological solutions.”

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