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How Corona (Temporarily) Turned the Aviation Industry Upside Down!

The Corona pandemic hit the aviation industry with a mighty clash and reshuffled it completely — at least temporarily. We take a closer look at airline and airport rankings and how traffic has changed.

When we first heard about a virus breakout in Asia, we couldn’t imagine how this would change the world. Especially the aviation industry, as one of the most global industries, suddenly found itself in the biggest crisis ever. 

After more than one year, it turned out that some world regions handled the pandemic more efficiently and returned to a recovery path faster than others. This mainly accounts for Asia, whereas Europe was left far behind.

What we Analyzed: Revenue Passenger Kilometers and Passenger Figures

We wanted to know more in detail and looked at how Corona changed the aviation industry. Therefore, we analyzed pre-Corona traffic figures from 2018 with numbers from 2020.

In terms of airlines, we compared revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs), and in terms of airports, we looked at the passenger figures.

Pre-Corona: U.S. and European Airlines led the Industry.

So, let’s have a look at how the airline world was in pre-Corona times. Therefore, the chart below leaves no room for interpretation: Pre-Corona, airlines dominated by airlines from Europe and the United States. Ten of the 15 biggest airlines are based in the United States or Europe. Moreover, the six biggest airlines in terms of revenue passenger kilometers are from Europe or the U.S. With China Southern, China Eastern, and Air China, the ranking contains three carriers from Asia, more precisely from China. However, the gap between Chinese airlines and the leading airlines is quite significant. Compared with Delta or United, traffic figures of the mentioned Chinese airlines are ~45% less.

Top 15 Airline Groups ranked by RPK
Top-15 Airline Groups (ranked by RPK, September 2018)

How Corona Reshuffled the Aviation Industry

Fast forward to November 2020. The world witnessed an unprecedented pandemic. Airlines grounded aircraft, and passenger numbers dropped sharply. However, as initially stated, it turned out that different world regions managed the pandemic more efficiently than others. And when we looked at the world’s biggest airlines in November 2020, the picture changed entirely to 2018. After twelve months with Corona, aviation, and particularly the airline industry, looks completely different!

How Corona changed aviation: Top 15 Airlines
Top-15 Airline Groups (ranked by RPK, November 2020)

All of a sudden, the three biggest airlines are no longer from Europe or the United States. On the contrary, Chinese airlines lead the list. Additionally, Hainan Airlines, a fourth Chinese airline, made it to the top 10.

However, besides the changes in ranking, there’s another essential take-away when comparing the figures to 2018 RPK’s. Therefore the picture below highlights the percentage changes. On average, the traffic of the three Chinese airlines dropped by one-third “only.” At the same time, Delta, American, and United are confronted with a traffic decrease of 67% — more than two-thirds! And when looking at the three European airlines, the picture turns deep red! Compared to 2018, Air France’s, Lufthansa’s, and IAG’s traffic declined by 83%. 

RPK Development September 2018 vs. November 2020

Corona’s Impact on Airports

Let’s move on, and let us take a look at airports pre-Corona and in March 2020. In terms of airports, we’ve analyzed the passenger numbers for each station.

Pre-Corona: An Aviation World in Balance

When looking at the biggest airports in pre-Corona time, we find a world in balance. With London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Istanbul, we find five European airports in the Top-15. Additionally, the United States adds three airports to the Top-15 (Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles), accompanied by six Asian airports (Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou) and Dubai.

Top 15 Airports ranked by passengers (September 2018)
Top 15 Airports ranked by passengers (September 2018)

November 2020: HERE’S ASIA!

Again, fast forward to November 2020. And fast forward to the list of the biggest airports that Asian airports dominate. Twelve out of 15 airports, an amazing 80%, of the biggest airports in November 2020 are located in Asia. And in case you are searching for a European airport — sorry pal, you won’t find one on this list. One year after the world witnessed the first Corona case, there’s no single European airport left among the world’s Top-15 busiest airports.

How Corona Change Aviation: Top 15 Airports ranked by passengers (November 2020)
Top 15 Airports ranked by passengers (November 2020)

Only a Snapshot? How is Corona Going to Impact the Aviation Industry in the Long Term?

Of course, one can argue that we’ve picked out specific months, which doesn’t provide the big picture. Moreover, based on a highly dynamic pandemic situation, the image could already look different. It might do — and we will add another analysis soon.

However, the interesting question is how Corona will change the aviation industry in the long term. Of course, we don’t expect a continuation of such an extreme Asian dominance. Nevertheless, it is more than uncertain from a current perspective to see a balanced airport Top-15 in the mid-and long-term. Moreover, one can doubt if airlines from the United States or Europe will return to the Top-3 airlines of the world.

The future will tell 🙂

What do you Think — How’s Corona Impacting the Aviation Industry?

Always happy to get your feedback and thoughts. Leave me a comment or get in touch on Twitter or Instagram!

Data Source: All data used in this post is based on ICAO statistics.

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Benjamin Walther

CEO, Frankfurt

Benjamin is Information Design's CEO and a proven content-maniac. Besides running a successful business and developing pioneering ideas, he's dedicated to writing blog posts and creating content.

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