The future of global air travel

ACI World’s economics data scientist, Hyuntae Jung, and senior director for economics data and analytics, Diederik Meijerink, highlight some of the key findings of ACI World’s new long-term traffic forecast.

ACI World’s newly released World Airport Traffic Forecasts (WATF) 2023–2052 sheds light on the trajectory of air traffic over the next three decades.

This year’s version of our annual flagship publication shows that global passenger traffic is set to double over the next 20 years, by which time China will have replaced the US as the world’s biggest aviation market. But what else can we expect? Let’s take a closer look at what the future holds.

The latest WATF report extends its horizon by an impressive 10 years, offering a comprehensive 30-year outlook on airport traffic forecasts worldwide. Drawing data from 141 countries, including 29 new additions, the report provides granular forecasts for passengers, air cargo volumes, and aircraft movements.

Short and medium-term outlook: returning to pre-pandemic levels

Optimism abounds as the forecast predicts that global passenger traffic in 2024 will surpass the 2019 level for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

The projection is that 9.7 billion passengers will pass through the world’s airports this year. If accurate, the total will represent a 6% increase over pre-pandemic levels, showing that the industry is on a path towards full recovery.

However, the pace of growth is expected to stabilise in the coming years, influenced by macroeconomic factors such as inflation, GDP fluctuations, and geopolitical tensions.

A glance at year-to-date figures for October 2023 revealed a robust recovery trend, with total passenger traffic up by 28% compared to the previous year 2022. International travel, in particular, has witnessed a notable resurgence, indicating pent-up demand for cross-border journeys.

Long-term outlook: steady growth and shifting markets

Looking further ahead, projections suggest a steady growth trajectory for global passenger traffic, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3% expected between 2023 and 2042. While initial post-pandemic years may see accelerated growth, rates are expected to normalise by 2052.

The top 20 markets by total passenger traffic forecast depict a shifting landscape, in terms of both domestic and international passenger traffic.

While the United States has traditionally held the top spot, China is projected to surpass it by 2042 in terms of international passenger traffic. By 2052, China is expected to maintain its dominance in both domestic and international air travel.

Meanwhile, emerging economies like Indonesia, Turkey, and Thailand are poised to climb the ranks, reflecting their growing importance in the global aviation market. These shifts underscore the evolving dynamics of air travel and the increasing interconnectedness of economies worldwide.

The top markets by total passenger traffic forecast table at the bottom of page 19 gives you some idea of what the future might hold for global passenger traffic.

Air cargo market: modest recovery and steady growth

While passenger traffic takes the spotlight, the air cargo market is also showing signs of recovery. After a slight dip in 2023, global air cargo volume is projected to rebound in 2024, with a 6% year-on-year growth rate.

Long-term forecasts indicate steady growth in air cargo tonnage, albeit at a slower pace compared to passenger traffic.

In conclusion, the aviation industry’s resurgence underscores its vital role in global connectivity and economic growth.

Airports prioritise passenger safety, environmental sustainability, community engagement, and employee wellbeing as integral components of their operations.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic and geopolitical uncertainties, the future of air travel shines bright, offering ample opportunities for growth and innovation. As we navigate the skies ahead, let us remain steadfast in our commitment to a safe, sustainable, and thriving aviation sector.

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