Airline industry experts cite rapid increases in passenger traffic as a sign that the pandemic recovery is happening faster than expected. (Stock image)

Heavy Bookings Point to Faster Pandemic Recovery

Aviation insiders say the industry’s pandemic recovery is happening faster than initially expected, with a return to pre-pandemic figures in 2023.

Comments earlier this month from International Air Transport Association Director General Willie Walsh suggest the aviation recovery worldwide could be back a year earlier than previously forecasted.

Walsh told Reuters that overall passenger traffic was picking up faster than expected despite the war in Ukraine and continued travel restrictions in China.

“We’re seeing very strong bookings. Certainly all the airline CEOs that I’m talking to are seeing not just good demand for year-end travel but they continue to see demand as they looked through the year,” he said, according to Reuters.

Walsh said the easing of pandemic restrictions around the world is releasing pent-up demand. High oil prices and labor shortages have so far not deterred travelers, even though oil prices likely caused a 10 percent rise in fares. Travel restrictions in China and in the Asia-Pacific region could cause lags in the recovery there, he said.

“I don’t think we should be distracted from the fact that we are seeing a strong recovery and I think that recovery will gather momentum as we go through the rest of this year into 2023.”

Other experts agreed with that assessment, including Bijan Vasigh, an aviation consultant and professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Vasigh said he expected passenger traffic numbers in North America and Europe this year to finish as high as 90 percent of 2019, the year before the pandemic began.

“I think we will be close to 2019 this year. For a long time, people were not able to travel. Now they’re hitting the road, but still some destinations are not open—China, for example,” Vasigh said.

He expects most airlines to return to profitability in 2023.

“The price of oil is really an impediment to get back to profitability overall. Some airlines are making money and are in a good position. I’m very hopeful for the airlines in 2023,” Vasigh said.

Air travel this year has seen passenger levels significantly higher than the past two years, according to passenger throughput data from the Transportation Security Administration. National numbers from April approached nearly 90 percent of 2019 travel, although year-to-date figures are less.

“In March, we saw what’s possible, with surging demand brought on by reduced infection rates, relaxed restrictions and tremendous pent-up demand for people to travel,” said Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines, in its earnings conference call, according to a report in USA Today. “Demand is as strong as we’ve ever seen it.”

Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein agreed, saying in an April earnings call that profit margins are looking good “as fuel prices have continued to run up and demand continues to remain strong,” USA Today reported.

Pittsburgh International Airport reported nearly 700,000 passengers in April, which is 87 percent of April 2019 figures and an 88 percent increase year-to-date over 2021.

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