Govt. aid critical as cash burn rate for airlines could reach US$95 billion in 2021: IATA

Losses will be reduced in 2021 vs. 2020, but crisis for airlines still very real, says IATA’s Walsh

GENEVA — The latest projections from IATA put net airline industry losses at $47.7 billion in 2021, with a net profit margin of -10.4%.

As bad as that is, it’s an improvement on the estimated net industry loss of $126.4 billion, with a net profit margin of -33.9%, in 2020, says IATA.

“This crisis is longer and deeper than anyone could have expected. Losses will be reduced from 2020, but the pain of the crisis increases,” says IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh.

Walsh adds: “There is optimism in domestic markets where aviation’s hallmark resilience is demonstrated by rebounds in markets without internal travel restrictions. Government imposed travel restrictions, however, continue to dampen the strong underlying demand for international travel. Despite an estimated 2.4 billion people travelling by air in 2021, airlines will burn through a further $81 billion of cash.”



Walsh says IATA’s current outlook suggests the start of industry recovery will come in the latter part of 2021.

In the meantime IATA is calling for:

Plans for a restart: IATA continues to urge governments to have plans in place so that no time is lost in restarting the sector when the epidemiological situation allows for a re-opening of borders.

“Most governments have not yet provided clear indications of the benchmarks that they will use to safely give people back their travel freedom,” says Walsh.



“In the meantime, a significant portion of the $3.5 trillion in GDP and 88 million jobs supported by aviation are at risk. Effectively restarting aviation will energize the travel and tourism sectors and the wider economy. With the virus becoming endemic, learning to safely live, work and travel with it is critical. That means governments must turn their focus to risk management to protect livelihoods as well as lives.”

Employment Support: The industry will recover but more government relief measures, particularly in the form of employment support programmes, will be needed this year, says Walsh. Industry losses imply a cash burn of $81 billion in 2021 on top of $149 billion in 2020. Government financial relief measures and capital markets have been filling this hole in airline balance sheets, preventing widespread bankruptcies.

“Owing to government relief measures, cost-cutting, and success in accessing capital markets, some airlines appear able to ride out the storm. Others are less well-cushioned and may need to raise more cash from banks or capital markets. This will add to the industry’s debt burden, which has ballooned by $220 billion to $651 billion. There is a definite role for governments in providing relief measures that ensure critical employees and skills are retained to successfully restart and rebuild the industry,” he said.

Cost containment/reduction: The whole industry will come out of the crisis financially weakened. Cost containment and reductions, wherever possible, will be key to restoring financial health, says Walsh.

“Containing and reducing costs will be top of mind for airlines. Governments and partners must have the same mentality. And that must be reflected in items big and small. There can be no tolerance for monopoly infrastructure suppliers gouging their customers to recoup losses through higher charges. Equally, we demand an end to the extortionate costs for COVID-19 testing with governments taking their cut on top of that with taxes. Everyone must be aligned in understanding that increased travel costs will mean a slower economic recovery. Cost reduction efforts on all sides are needed,” said Walsh.


Demand: Travel restrictions, including quarantines, have killed demand, notes Walsh. IATA estimates that travel (measured in revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs) will recover to 43% of 2019 levels over the year. While that is a 26% improvement on 2020, “it is far from a recovery.” Domestic markets will improve faster than international travel. Overall passenger numbers are expected to reach 2.4 billion in 2021, an improvement on the nearly 1.8 billion who travelled in 2020, but well below the 2019 peak of 4.5 billion.

  • International passenger traffic was 86.6% down on pre-crisis levels over the first two months of 2021. IATA expects that vaccination progress in developed countries, especially the U.S. and Europe, is expected to combine with widespread testing capacity to enable a return to some international travel at scale in the second half of the year, reaching 34% of 2019 demand levels. 2021 and 2020 have opposite demand patterns: 2020 started strong and ended weak, while 2021 is starting weak and is expected to strengthen towards year-end, notes IATA.
  • Domestic passenger traffic is expected to perform significantly better than international markets, according to IATA’s projections and in line with projections from the world’s travel industries. IATA estimates that domestic markets could recover to 96% of pre-crisis (2019) levels in the second half of 2021, a 48% improvement on 2020 performance.

Revenues: Industry revenues are expected to total $458 billion. That’s 55% of the $838 billion generated in 2019 but represents 23% growth on the $372 billion generated in 2020.

Passenger revenues are expected to total $231 billion, up from $189 billion in 2020, but far below the $607 billion generated in 2019. Cargo revenues are expected to reach $152 billion, an historic high, says Walsh.

Costs: In terms of fuel costs, the cost of jet kerosene fell to $46.6/barrel in 2020. But fuel costs are on the rise. Jet kerosene is expected to rise to an average of $68.9/barrel in 2021, nearing the 2019 average price of $77/barrel. Meanwhile non-fuel unit costs rose by 17.5% in 2020 as fixed costs were spread over reduced capacity.

“We have seen some worrying signs from our airport and air navigation service providers. Heathrow, for example, is attempting to recoup pandemic losses by expanding its regulated cost base. We are in this crisis together with our partners. Recouping losses from one another is not the answer. We all need to tighten our belts. And the regulators need to act and stamp out monopolistic behaviours,” said Walsh.

Capacity: Walsh notes that capacity is likely to return at a slower pace than demand. Taking cargo and passenger traffic into account, the overall weighted load factor is forecast to rise a little to 60.3% in 2021. This is considerably below the 66% IATA estimates to be breakeven for profitability in 2021 – even though cash costs of operations are being covered.

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