Cooling economy predicted to slow growth of air travel in 2019

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Airplane on tarmac
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Globally, the number of commercial airline passengers grew by 5.9% in 2018, according to a report released last week by the flight analysis firm ForwardKeys. 

"The key factor is the overall global economic growth," said Olivier Ponti, ForwardKeys' vice president of insights. "I think when people have money they tend to travel."

However, forecasters expect air travel growth to slow this year in parallel with a slowdown in global economic growth. 

In a report this month, the World Bank forecasted 2019 global economic growth of 2.9%, down from 3% in 2018 and also a downward revision from its June forecast of 3% growth for this year. In the report, the World Bank noted that international trade and investment have softened and trade tensions have intensified. 

"If this continues, it should translate into a slowdown in air traffic growth," Ponti said. 

The ForwardKeys analysis of 2018 growth in worldwide airline passengers differs a bit from IATA's December estimate that the industry would see a 6.5% increase last year. But IATA, too, sees the growth rate dropping this year. In December, the trade group cited a slower global economy, trade disputes and uncertainties caused by Brexit in predicting slightly less robust passenger traffic growth of 6% this year. But IATA also said that such an increase would still be higher than the industry's 20-year trend growth rate. 

IATA has long warned of Brexit-related pitfalls for aviation. The European Commission has proposed that flights from the U.K. be allowed to continue for 12 months in the event of a no-deal Brexit on March 29, a prospect that has grown more likely in recent months as U.K. prime minister Theresa May has failed to win domestic support for a Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU. 

But the EU proposal would not allow for U.K.-owned airlines to operate routes from one EU member state to another, as they can now. 

Ponti, too, said that Brexit remains a significant uncertainty in the 2019 global aviation outlook. He added that the U.S.-China trade war is already having a demonstrable impact on air travel. 

"When you look at China's outbound market, it is growing real fast, but when you see the number of departures to the U.S., you see a negative trend," Ponti said. "So I think the differential could be explained by the tensions between those two countries. In China, there is more and more an impression that the U.S. is less Chinese-friendly."

U.S.-China trade tensions also factor into a U.S. Travel Association prediction that international inbound travel to the U.S. will fizzle in 2019. 

U.S. Travel said inbound arrivals were up 3.8% year over year in November, but senior vice president of research David Huether said that this year's forecast is for the U.S. to lose ground to the rest of the world when it comes to inbound, long-haul visitation. Travel to the U.S. from locations outside Mexico and Canada will grow 2.8% next year, according to the forecast, compared with a 4.8% growth in worldwide travel. One drag on inbound tourism will be the dollar, which regained strength versus other global currencies in 2018 after losing ground in 2017, Huether said.

U.S. Travel also expects growth in domestic leisure travel, which was 3% in November, to slow this year in parallel with a slowing U.S. economy. 

The Congressional Budget Office forecasted in August that the U.S. economy would grow 2.4% this year, compared with 3.1% growth in 2018. 

As for domestic business travel, Huether said U.S. Travel predicts that it will nudge slightly upward this year.

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