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It was back to the future for U.S. airlines in 2020 when passenger numbers fell to levels unseen since 1985. And while traffic will likely rebound some this year, the slow vaccine roll out and new Covid-19 strains have the outlook far from certain.

U.S. carriers have known they would take a record hit in 2020 since at least March when United Airlines unveiled the first broad-based capacity cuts as early fears of the coronavirus pandemic mounted. Now we know just how bad the year was.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics has released its preliminary 2020 passenger numbers and the results are stark. Airlines carried just 368 million flyers during the year compared to nearly 923 million in 2019. That represents a dramatic 60 percent drop from one year to the next.

Put another way, traveler numbers hit a level unseen since 1985, according to data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A).

Of course, the airline industry is very different than three-plus decades ago. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United were all among the largest carriers, but competition was rampant with past names like Eastern Air Lines and Trans World Airlines still vying for top spots. And while 2020 saw airlines cut flights and suspend cities as traffic fell, the opposite was true in 1985 when route maps included dozens of small cities — like Manassas, Va., and Salem, Ore. — amid rising traveler numbers.

The collapse in travel demand brought with it record losses. The six largest U.S. airlines racked up $43.8 billion in pre-tax losses in 2020. Numbers like those prompted Delta CEO Ed Bastian to describe the year as one “for the record books for all the wrong reasons.”

And the outlook for 2021 is not that much better. Passenger numbers are likely to rise from 2020 but no one knows by how much. Initial optimism of a coming inflection point in the recovery early in January has been tempered by a slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and increased concern of new coronavirus strains.

Global trade group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts just a 38 percent increase in passenger traffic in 2021 compared to last year. This is a 12-point drop from its December forecast owing to the new virus concerns that have emerged since the beginning of the year.

“The near-term outlook is darker than we expected,” IATA chief economist Brian Pearce said earlier in February. “We don’t have enough information as yet to know with a greater degree of certainty what the second half might look like.”

Year-to-Year Percent Change

2016-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020
January 3.8 3.0 5.2 5.7
February 0.6 5.8 4.2 6.7
March 4.2 4.6 6.4 -51.3
April 5.2 6.0 3.9 -96.1
May 3.7 6.1 5.3 -89.6
June 3.9 6.2 3.7 -80.2
July 4.4 6.4 3.7 -72.4
August 5.6 6.3 3.5 -69.8
September -1.9 7.1 5.7 -65.2
October 5.1 5.0 4.2 -61.8
November 5.0 5.7 0.5 -60.7
December 3.9 4.8 8.9 -61.5
Annual 3.7 5.6 4.6 -60.1

Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, T-100 Market
* December 2020 data is preliminary

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Tags: a4a, air canada, american airlines, coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, delta air lines, iata, united airlines

Photo Credit: U.S. traveler numbers fell to levels unseen since 1985. Courtesy of Delta / Delta Air Lines

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