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As we start a new year, it’s natural to wonder what changes it will bring. Coming out of such a difficult last two years, the aviation industry is undoubtedly hoping for improvement. While COVID-related challenges remain dominant, there are many other areas to watch in 2022.


2021 – another difficult year

We don’t need any reminding that 2021 was a tough year for aviation. COVID-19 continued to rage around the world. Despite improvements over the lows in passenger numbers in 2020, restrictions and uncertainty were the watchwords.

In Europe, overall traffic was down 64% in January 2021 (according to flight data from Eurocontrol). By the end of the year, though, it was down only 22%. Overall losses for the aviation industry in 2021 are estimated at $51.8 billion (according to IATA) – terrible, but an improvement on 2020’s estimated $137.7 billion losses.

Uncertainty has continued to be a real challenge. Airlines have repeatedly attempted to launch new schedules, only to face further restrictions or continued low demand. New virus variants have, of course, played their part in causing disruption.

Challenges increasing for cargo in 2021

It is not just airlines and passenger services that continued to see disruption. Cargo operations have been severely disrupted during the pandemic. Well-established procedures, staffing and aircraft logistics have been repeatedly affected. This worsened towards the end of 2021 with increasing disruption at airports and with onward logistics.

Operators have responded to cargo challenges, however, and this will continue. Passenger aircraft have been converted for freight use, and there are growing orders for new freighter aircraft.
With rising prices and uncertainty in availability, there has been strong growth in aircraft charter for cargo. Air Charter Service reports UK-based cargo charter demand up 150% compared to pre-pandemic levels – and 70% up just in October 2021 with the worsening situation.

2022 – continued disruption from COVID-19

As much as we would like it to be over, the pandemic will continue to significantly affect aviation in 2022. Forecasts are that the overall situation will improve, with IATA estimating losses of “only” $11.6 billion across the industry.

Regional and domestic flying, both commercial and private, have already shown the best improvement, and this will continue. In the US, domestic air traffic is expected to reach 92% of pre-pandemic levels, for example. Long-haul remains more uncertain. Europe and the Americas are opening up, but Asia remains some way off. China and Hong Kong even more so, as they continue to follow a zero-COVID strategy.

Against this, some airlines will continue to struggle. This is especially true of larger, legacy carriers with more reliance on business travel and long-haul.

Changes to airlines routes and coverage

Route profiles of many airlines have changed and will continue to do so. Less business and more leisure traffic is part of this, as is supporting cargo routes that remain lucrative. The additional capacity with underutilised aircraft has also allowed airlines to experiment with routes they may not normally operate. Point to point flights will likely continue to be more popular.

New entrants will shake up some markets. Existing low-cost carriers continue to expand significantly as well and will change operating patterns in several areas. In Europe, for example, Wizz Air has ambitious growth plans, with orders for over 300 new aircraft as of the start of 2022.

Forbes looked at the overall US market recently and made some interesting predictions. It believes that in 2022 the market share of the big four legacy airlines will drop from around 80% to 60% as existing competitors and new entrants take on more market share.

More or less airlines operating?

Many airlines have suffered financially over the past two years. There have been significant differences, though, with variation in different markets, the state of balance sheets at the start of the pandemic, and levels of government support. For the most part, large-scale bankruptcies have been avoided so far, but consolidation remains a possibility.

It is difficult to predict what could happen. Just as throughout the pandemic so far, changes are very dependent on future business activity, market opinion and further government support.
There is opportunity too. We have already seen new airlines start service during the pandemic, and more are set to do so in 2022. Keep an eye on Flypop with new services from the UK, and hopefully, the start of new US connections with Northern Pacific Airways.

Increasing green focus

We are still a long way from the 2050 target of halving overall aviation emissions, but many changes are well underway. New technologies, such as hydrogen and electric power, will develop further in 2022 but are still some way off commercial use. More efficient ‘traditional’ aircraft are also on the way, with major new aircraft from Airbus and Boeing flying in 2022.

The use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is the biggest growth area, and this will continue in 2022. IATA predicts massive growth in SAF volumes available over the coming years – and this will help lower prices. Volumes are expected to reach 8 billion litres by 2032 (up from just 6.5 million litres in 2019).

Final Thoughts

The tough economic situation of the past two years has shaken up many industries – and aviation is no exception. No one could have predicted the challenges that would be faced, and this is part of the reason for such damage and losses. Airlines have hung on and are now positioning themselves to operate better in the “new normal.” As aviation recovers, some things will look different, and airlines will adapt at different rates. This industry has seen disruption and change before, though, and will again.


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