EUROCONTROL Think Paper #15 - 2021 COVID-19 impact and 2022 outlook

Changing the European aviation recovery
Think paper 15 cover
Woman on the tarmac holding passport with airplane in the background

Almost two years after COVID first hit, just how resilient did the European aviation sector prove to be in 2021, where do we expect European aviation traffic to be by the end of 2022, and what still needs to be done to ensure the sector builds back sustainably? Using the very latest EUROCONTROL aviation data, our 15th Think Paper provides you with an authoritative summary of all the key indicators for European aviation in 2021, and our expectations for how the recovery will continue in 2022.

We chart what has been a partial but crucially sustained traffic recovery in Europe over 2021. Traffic started the year at 36% of 2019 levels in January, and 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 & 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.

We do not expect this growth to unwind in 2022, with traffic still on track to recover by 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 across the EUROCONTROL network remain huge, and not vastly better than the first year of the pandemic:

  • 1.4-1.5 billion passengers fewer than 2019 (2020: -1.7 billion);
  • 4.9 million fewer flights (2020: -6.1 million);
  • €18.5 billion in European airline losses (2020: -€22.2 billion);
  • 55% of pre-pandemic flight choice across Europe.

“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 to bring European aviation a lot closer to 2019 traffic levels. At the same time, this year we must urgently accelerate our plans to make aviation sustainable, building back better with major investment in new technological solutions”.

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EUROCONTROL Think Paper #15