Air travel is forecast to recover beyond pre-pandemic levels by 2024, but the Asia-Pacific region will take longer to rebound.
Figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show that it expects overall traveller numbers to reach four billion in 2024 (counting multi-sector connecting trips as one passenger), 3 per cent more than the level before Covid-19.
However the slow removal of international travel restrictions, and the likelihood of renewed domestic restrictions during Covid outbreaks, mean that traffic to, from and within the Asia-Pacific region will reach only 68 per cent of 2019 levels in 2022, the weakest outcome of the main regions.
It is expected to be 2025 before numbers exceed pre-pandemic levels - 109 per cent.
The overall picture presented in the latest update to IATA's long-term forecast is unchanged from what was expected in November, before the Omicron variant.
"The trajectory for the recovery in passenger numbers from Covid-19 was not changed by the Omicron variant. People want to travel," said Willie Walsh, the association's director-general. "And when travel restrictions are lifted, they return to the skies. There is still a long way to go to reach a normal state of affairs, but the forecast for the evolution in passenger numbers gives good reason to be optimistic."
In 2021, overall traveller numbers were 47 per cent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 83 per cent this year and 94 per cent in 2022.
This is a slightly more optimistic view of the near-term international recovery compared to November 2021, based on the progressive relaxation or elimination of travel restrictions in many markets. The Asia-Pacific is expected to continue to lag the recovery, with the region's largest market, China, not showing any signs of relaxing its severe border measures in the near future.
In 2021, domestic traveller numbers were 61 per cent of 2019 levels. This is expected to improve to 93 per cent next year.
The figures don't take into account the fallout for aviation due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which a global consultancy this week said could delay recovery from the pandemic.
Walsh said the biggest and most immediate drivers of passenger numbers are the restrictions that governments place on travel.
"Fortunately, more governments have understood that travel restrictions have little to no long-term impact on the spread of a virus. And the economic and social hardship caused for very limited benefit is simply no longer acceptable in a growing number of markets. As a result, the progressive removal of restrictions is giving a much-needed boost to the prospects for travel."
The association is calling for the removal of all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for people who are fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine, allowing pre-departure antigen testing to enable quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travellers and removing all travel bans.
It also wants faster easing of travel restrictions, to recognise that travellers pose no greater risk for Covid-19 spread than already exists in the general population, as has played out in New Zealand, leading to the dropping of isolation requirements for returning Kiwis.
"In general, we are moving in the right direction, but there are some concerns. Asia-Pacific is the laggard of the recovery," said Walsh.
"While Australia and New Zealand have announced measures to reconnect with the world, China is showing no signs of relaxing its zero-Covid strategy. The resulting localised lockdowns in its domestic market are depressing global passenger numbers even as other major markets like the US are largely back to normal."
Fallout from Russia's war on Ukraine
Aviation industry consultant IBA has identified 589 aircraft, operated by Russian airlines and owned by lessors based outside Russia, that have been affected by the crisis. About 80 per cent of those aircraft are in Russia.
In Ukraine, there are 57 grounded lessor-owned grounded aircraft.
Russian airlines have 62 aircraft on order, with the single largest outstanding orders being 28 Boeing 737MAX 8s for Utair and 13 Airbus A350-900s for Aeroflot. Europe has banned the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Russian airlines and lessors.
Russian airlines represents about 6 per cent of the available seat kilometres offered by all airlines across the globe.
European carriers have very little exposure to the Russian market, and a small exposure to Ukraine. Last month Ryanair was the second largest airline in the Ukrainian market, with a market share of 12.3 per cent, while Wizz Air was ranked fourth with 9.6 per cent.
The United States will follow the European Union and Canada in banning Russian flights from its airspace, and in retaliation many airlines are now prohibited from flying over Russia.
IBA says many European carriers now need to lengthen their flight routes when flying to and from East Asia, placing them at a competitive disadvantage to Chinese airlines, to whom Russian airspace is still open. The Middle East "super connector" airlines are also set to benefit as their flight paths more easily avoid Russian airspace.
Airlines, especially those with unhedged fuel costs, are also set to encounter higher costs as the impact of the crisis on energy markets drives higher jet fuel prices. In the US, Jet fuel costs have exceeded 2019 levels.
Phil Seymour, president of IBA, said many industry stakeholders will feel the impact of the war in Ukraine, from banks and other sources of finance, lessors, aircraft manufacturers and of course, airlines.
"We forecast that this will delay the industry's recovery from the pandemic by at least two months."
The fighting has already claimed one high-profile aviation victim - the Antonov AN-225 Mriya, the world's largest aircraft. Its loss has shocked the aviation community.
The extent of damage is not clear, but Ukroboronprom, the Ukraine state defence company that manages the giant plane, says it will be restored at a cost of $4.4 billion.
"The occupiers destroyed the airplane, but they won't be able to destroy our common dream. Mriya will definitely be reborn. The restoration is estimated to take over $US3b and over 5 years. Our task is to ensure that these costs are covered by the Russian Federation, which has caused intentional damage to Ukraine's aviation and the air cargo sector," Ukroboronprom says on its website.