The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced global passenger traffic results for February 2019 showing total revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs) rose 5.3%, compared to February 2018. This was the slowest rate of growth in more than a year but still in line with long-term demand trends. Monthly capacity (available seat kilometers or ASKs) increased by 5.4%, and load factor slipped 0.1 percentage point to 80.6%, which is still high by historic standards.
“After January’s strong performance, we settled down a bit in February, in line with concerns about the broader economic outlook. Continuing trade tensions between the US and China, and unresolved uncertainty over Brexit are also weighing on the outlook for travel,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
nternational Passenger Markets
February international passenger demand rose 4.6% compared to February 2018, which was a slowdown from 5.9% growth in January. Capacity climbed 5.1%, and load factor dropped 0.4 percentage point to 79.5%. Airlines in all regions but the Middle East showed traffic growth versus the year-ago period.
- European carriers showed the strongest performance for a fifth consecutive month in February. Passenger demand increased by 7.6%, compared to a year ago, unchanged from January. Europe’s continuing strong performance provides a paradox given Brexit concerns and signs of a softer economic outlook. Capacity rose 8.0% and load factor slid 0.3 percentage point to 82.3%, which still was the highest among regions.
- Asia-Pacific airlines’ February traffic rose 4.2% compared to the year-ago period, a substantial slowdown from the 7.2% increase recorded in January. The timing of the Lunar New Year holiday in the first week of February this year may have shifted some traffic to January. Capacity increased 4.7% and load factor dipped 0.3 percentage point to 81.0%.
- Middle East carriers recorded a 0.8% traffic decline in February compared to a year ago, the only region to report a drop year-over-year. Capacity rose 2.9% and load factor fell 2.7 percentage points to 72.6%. Broadly speaking, passenger volumes of the region’s airlines have been moving sideways for the past 12 – 15 months.
- North American airlines’ traffic climbed 4.2% in February, a decline from 5.4% growth in January. Capacity rose 2.9% and load factor was up 1.0 percentage point to 79.0%. Signs of softening economic activity at the end of 2018, in conjunction with the effects of ongoing tensions between the US and several of its trading partners, may be mitigated by the region’s low unemployment and generally sound economic backdrop.
- Latin American airlines saw traffic rise 4.3% compared to February 2018, a slippage from 5.4% annual growth in January. Capacity increased by 5.6%, and load factor dropped 1.0 percentage point to 81.4%. Renewed economic and political uncertainties in a number of key countries may weigh upon air transport demand in coming months.
- African airlines experienced a 2.5% rise in traffic for the month compared to the year-ago period, down from 5.1% growth in January. Concerns over conditions in the largest economies are contributing to the slowdown. Capacity rose 0.3%, and load factor climbed 1.5 percentage points to 69.7%.
Domestic Passenger Markets
Domestic travel demand rose 6.4% in February compared to February 2018, down from 7.4% annual growth in January. All markets except Australia reported increases in traffic, with India recording its 54th consecutive month of double-digit percentage growth. Domestic capacity climbed 5.8%, and load factor edged up 0.5 percentage point to 82.4%.
- China topped the growth chart for a second month in a row, with RPKs up a strong 11.4% year-on-year, although this was down from 14.5% growth in January compared to a year ago.
- Brazil’s domestic traffic increased 5.8% in February, compared to a year ago, the fastest pace in more than six months and more than double the 2.6% year-over-year rise for January. Brazil was the only domestic market tracked by IATA to show an increase in the year-on-year growth rate compared to January 2019.
The Bottom Line
“While overall economic confidence appears to be softening, aviation continues to deliver solid results, helping to sustain global commerce and the movement of people. The Brexit deadline has come and gone with no separation agreement, but with vital air connectivity between the UK and the Continent maintained for the present. Temporary measures, however, are no substitute for a comprehensive Brexit package that will ensure that the Business of Freedom is able to play its vital role in contributing to the well-being of the region—and the world,” said de Juniac.
Travel to and within the U.S. grew 3.2% year-over-year in February, according to the U.S. Travel Association’s latest Travel Trends Index (TTI).
However, the predictive Leading Travel Index (LTI) continues to project a slowdown in both international and domestic travel growth, as both segments could continue to feel the effects of rising trade tensions, volatile financial markets and weakening business and consumer confidence. These factors have the potential to stunt travel growth and dull American competitiveness at a time when the U.S. is seeking to reverse its declining share of the global international travel market.
Though international inbound travel grew for the ninth consecutive month, the segment grew only 1.4% in February. Domestic travel increased 2.8% year-over-year in February, with growth in both the business and leisure travel segments. Domestic business travel outpaced the leisure segment for the first time since October 2018, registering slightly above its six-month moving average with a 3.0% growth. Leisure growth fell slightly below its six-month moving average with a more tepid 2.6% growth rate.
Looking ahead, domestic and international inbound travel are both projected to grow, but at a moderate pace.
Said U.S. Travel Senior Vice President for Research David Huether: “Growth is expected to decelerate in the case of domestic travel while international inbound travel is projected to remain soft. This is consistent with an expectation of stable-yet-moderating economic growth both in the U.S. and globally.”
U.S. Travel economists caution that this decelerated growth rate will make it even more difficult for the U.S. to regain its diminishing share of the global international travel market. Acting on certain legislative initiatives—such as Brand USA’s long-term reauthorization and the rebranding and expansion of the Visa Waiver Program—can help the U.S. increase competitiveness in the global travel market.
The TTI is prepared for U.S. Travel by the research firm Oxford Economics. The TTI is based on public and private sector source data which are subject to revision by the source agency. The TTI draws from: advance search and bookings data from ADARA and nSight; airline bookings data from the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC); IATA, OAG and other tabulations of international inbound travel to the U.S.; and hotel room demand data from STR.
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