UK passenger traffic down 75% for 2020, CAA data reveals

Mar 19, 2021

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It should come as no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the aviation industry. We’ve seen how airlines have been forced to ground their fleets and travellers have been forced to stay at home for much of the past 12 months.

Now, we’re getting a clearer idea of exactly how devastating the pandemic has been on the industry.

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The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced on Friday that all airlines carried a total of 68.5 million passengers in or out of the U.K. for the full-year 2020 — down 75% compared to 2019. Most startlingly, in April and May 2020, passenger numbers around the U.K. fell by almost 98% compared to the year prior, with only 700,000 passengers travelling through U.K. airports.

Related: Heathrow reports £2 billion loss as passenger numbers drop to 1970s levels

While the pandemic was the largest factor that contributed to the decrease in air travel, the CAA said that prior to the first lockdown in March 2020, passenger numbers were lower than usual. Thanks to poor weather conditions in February 2020 that caused cancellations around the country in addition to the emergence of COVID-19, the beginning of the year was off to a 1.8% decline in passengers compared to February 2019.

Air travel saw a brief return in demand during summer 2020, though there was still an 82% decrease in passenger numbers compared to summer 2019.

While passenger numbers were down by 75% for the year, the amount of cargo flying through U.K. skies had increased. For 2020, 1,348,000 tonnes of freight flew on dedicated cargo aircraft — a 56.8% increase compared to 2019.

The aviation and travel industries are hopeful for a return to demand in 2021 and beyond. While the U.K. is still in its third national lockdown, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled in his roadmap out of lockdown that international travel could return on 17 May at the earliest.

Related: What does the roadmap out of lockdown mean for travel?

Airlines have been supportive of the measure, indicating, however, that the government will need to unveil its approach to travel prior to the restart of travel.

It’s possible that we could see a list similar to 2020’s travel corridors, which would allow travellers to return to England from low-risk destinations without having to quarantine. However, it’s still yet to be set out by the Global Travel Taskforce. The announcement for how the government plans to resume international travel will be laid out by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps by 12 April.

Of course, the major difference this year compared to last year is the massive vaccination rollout programme in the U.K. — and around the world.

While many industry executives are predicting that travel won’t resume to pre-pandemic levels for years, many are hopeful that short-haul leisure travel from the U.K. will bounce back quickly. Thanks to pent-up demand from travellers, airlines have been the beneficiaries of massive spikes in bookings since Johnson unveiled the roadmap out of lockdown.

Related: Heathrow loses title as busiest airport in Europe

By point of comparison, in the U.S., domestic and foreign airlines carried 398 million passengers in 2020 — 62% fewer than in 2019. The biggest drop was for international passengers, which fell 74% for the year compared to 2019.

Featured photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images.

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