By Joanna Plucinska
LONDON (Reuters) -Global airline traffic recovered to 68.5% of pre-pandemic levels last year and surged 64.4% from 2021, according to figures published by global aviation body IATA on Monday.
Airlines lost tens of billions of dollars in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and saw the first signs of relief as travel started to return in 2022, particularly during the summer months.
With China’s recent reopening, that recovery is set to go on, the head of IATA said.
“This momentum is expected to continue in the new year, despite some governments’ overreactions to China’s reopening,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director-general.
China previously said it would resume overseas group tours organized by tour agencies and online travel companies for Chinese citizens starting from Monday.
European carriers saw full-year traffic jump 132.2% compared to 2021, while North American airlines saw a 130.2% rise year-on-year, according to the data.
But analysts and executives have long said that recovery to full pre-pandemic levels depends on how quickly travel to and from China can bounce back.
“It is vital that governments learn the lesson that travel restrictions and border closures have little positive impact in terms of slowing the spread of infectious diseases in our globally inter-connected world,” Walsh added.
Many countries, like France, introduced mandatory COVID testing for those flying from China, sparking protests from the aviation sector.
Current schedules show there could still be substantially fewer flights between Asia and Europe in 2023 compared to 2019, data from Cirium showed, but more routes are being announced.
Some airline groups have said they would reopen some routes to China in the coming months, but with flights being less frequent than prior to the pandemic.
Air France-KLM <AIRF.PA> said earlier this month it would start running daily flights to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing starting in July while British Airways <ICAG.L> said it would start flights between London and Shanghai from April 23.
Growth in flights from other regions might have to pick up more to compensate for a lag in Chinese flights in order for full global traffic recovery to 2019 levels, some analysts have said.
“I don’t think that China’s recovery will probably get back to 2019 levels until next or the following year to Europe,” James Halstead, managing partner at consultancy Aviation Strategy said.
“For short-haul flights, you’ll probably see better recovery, but it’s still going to be tentative and it’ll depend on border controls within Asia.”
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Additional reporting by Jamie Freed, Ilona WissenbachEditing by David Goodman and Bernadette Baum)