Don’t count on a recovery in global air travel before 2024, S&P says

May 29, 2020, 10:47 AM UTC

The aviation industry’s recovery from the coronavirus outbreak will be long and slow, with passenger numbers likely to stay below pre-pandemic levels through 2023, according to S&P Global Ratings, which warned of more rating downgrades for airports over the next few months.

Global air passenger numbers will drop as much as 55% this year, a far steeper slump than previously estimated, analysts including Tania Tsoneva and Julyana Yokota wrote in a report dated May 28. Any recovery will depend on factors including how governments ease travel restrictions, people’s willingness to fly again and the extent of economic damage from the outbreak, they said.

Some countries are gradually allowing flights to operate following lockdowns and restrictions on movement, but volumes remain low. Airports are struggling for business as demand for services such as dining and duty-free shopping essentially evaporated. 

“Air travel will eventually return when current health and safety concerns have been meaningfully addressed by the industry and consumer confidence rebounds, supported by steady historical growth rates in air traffic of 4%-5% per year,” the analysts said. “A more widespread adoption of remote working and virtual meetings could have a lingering impact on business travel, which has been the more lucrative passenger segment for the airlines.”

S&P has already lowered its ratings on 11 airports since March and expects their financial strength to be eroded by the shutdowns, as well as an anemic recovery, capacity restructuring and greater counterparty risks of airlines.

“Airports will face increased exposure to volume risk and pressure on their aeronautical revenues, which generally represent over 50% of total revenues,” S&P said. “Retail revenues, the share of which have risen in recent years to 45%-50% of most airports’ revenue mix, will likely be even more heavily hit than aeronautical revenues.”