Airlines transported record number of 5 billion people in 2010


World aviation passenger traffic passed the five billion figure last year and grew faster than expected, according to data from Airports Council International (ACI). However, a number of challenges face airlines in 2011.

The Montreal-based ACI says that world air passenger traffic increased by 6.3% compared to 2009 and cargo also saw a big jump in growth, expanding by 15.2%. ACI based its report, released this week, on figures from 900 airports around the globe.

The airports with the most traffic last year were Beijing, which saw 13% more traffic than 2009, Chicago O’Hare with 3.3% more traffic, and London Heathrow. The latter lost traffic, recording a .2% decline, and as a result slipped to fourth busiest airport in the world. The top spot is occupied by Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport with 89 million passenger movements. Beijing Capital International Airport follows with 73 million passenger movements.

ACI says growth rates were uneven across the world, with airports in Europe and America struggling to achieve the same levels of traffic before the global recession. On the other hand, the Asia-Pacific, Latin American and Middle East regions recorded spectacular growth in the double digits.

Further compounding traffic in the West was the unusually cold winter weather and the volcanic ash cloud. Nevertheless, Europe’s traffic grew by 4.3%. North America’s passenger traffic only grew by 2.4%, something ACI Director General Angela Gittens puts down to the slow recovery during the recession.

Strong traffic in the developing markets and Asia boosted passenger numbers by 11.5% in the Asia-Pacific region while 11.5% more passengers boarded flights in the Middle East. Africa’s growth came in slightly lower at 8.8%. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Africa experienced the fastest growth in air travel over the last year out of all air travel markets in the world with an increase in revenue passenger kilometres (RPK) of 14.3%.

On the freight side of things, Gittens said the recovery was better as double digit increases were recorded all over the world, led by the Asia-Pacific region with 18.6% and Europe with 17% freight growth.

Passenger growth in the Asia-Pacific region this year will take a dent from the Japanese disaster, according to IATA. Premium air travel will fall, since Japan makes up between 6 and 7% of the global air travel market, IATA said on Wednesday.
“It is too soon to judge how the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March will affect air travel, but the market is large enough to have a materially adverse impact on the international total for that month,” IATA said in a statement.

IATA noted that there was strong passenger growth at the beginning of the year but the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the unrest in Egypt, Libya and other North African countries would negatively affect February and March figures.

IATA said that premium aviation travel continues to growth at around 7%, smoothing out volatility in the process. It added that growth in economy travel, which is more robust than premium aviation travel, had stalled in recent months. Further affecting air travel is the rising oil price, which has caused airlines across the world to raise their fees.

According to the Air Transport Association in America, every US$1 increase in a barrel of oil costs airlines between US$405 million and US$430 million. “For each dollar it [oil] increases, the industry is challenged to recover US$1.6 billion in additional costs,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA director general and CEO. “With US$598 billion in revenues, US$9.1 billion in profits and a profit margin of just 1.5 percent, even with the good news on traffic, 2011 is starting out as a very challenging year for airlines.”