Air travel to bounce back faster in domestic markets, industry forecasts

A projected recovery in domestic air travel to pre-pandemic levels by 2022 puts the spotlight on emissions from major markets like the US and China

Emissions from in-country flights are often neglected in national climate plans (Pic: Nicky Boogaard/Flickr)


Air travel is resuming on many routes as restrictions to contain the spread of coronavirus ease.

Domestic air travel will return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, two years ahead of international air travel, according to projections from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Tourism Economics.

This trend puts an onus on major markets like the US and China to tackle the greenhouse gas emissions from in-country flights, experts said. Domestic travel accounts for around 40% of aviation CO2 emissions globally.

“It puts more of an emphasis on the need to tackle domestic aviation, absolutely,” said Annie Petsonk from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), who was not involved in the study. “Now is the time for aviation to build back better, and really take climate considerations to the core of its recovery.”

Climate targets for international aviation are generally considered to come under the remit of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Domestic aviation is covered by the national plans that form the building blocks of the Paris Agreement, but is rarely an area of focus at UN climate conferences. 

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Domestic flights make up a relatively small proportion of air travel for most European countries, including in the UK, the world’s third largest aviation emitter. But in the world’s top two emitters – the US and China, with 24% and 13% of global aviation emissions respectively – over two-thirds of emissions come from domestic flights.  

In 2015, the US laid out an aviation climate action plan to achieve “carbon neutral growth” above 2005 emissions for airlines by 2020, but little progress had been made towards this target before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a draft regulation for the country’s first ever emissions standard for aeroplanes. However, the average new aircraft delivered in 2019 was already about 6% more fuel-efficient than the EPA would require in 2028, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an independent research group based in the US.

“This is an example of manufacturers trying to lock in permissive environmental standards for aircraft in the final days of this administration,” said Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the ICCT. “Job one for the next administration will be to go back to the drawing board on EPA’s aircraft CO2 standard.” 

In a webinar last week setting out the new IATA/Tourism Economics projections, the organisations said Asia Pacific and US have seen a lower pandemic-induced fall in aviation than elsewhere, due to their large domestic markets.

“From this crisis we expect [the domestic share of travel to spike up… as people do look for some more known, safer destinations as well as looking for some savings on their travel,” said David Goodger, a managing director of Tourism Economics.

How fast will aviation recover? 

The forecasts come from a “baseline” scenario where overall flight passenger numbers recover to 2019 levels by 2023  – a year later than the organisations’ previous forecast in April. Responding to the updated forecast, Alexandre de Juniac, director general of IATA, called for more financial and policy relief measures from governments which avoid increasing the industry’s ballooning debt.

In an “upside” scenario, recovery would be slightly faster, the organisations said. A “downside” scenario – with a second wave of COVID-19 and a financial crisis – would see passenger levels reach 2019 levels only in 2026. 

All the scenarios project a return to rapid growth in flights within the next decade, with the number of air passengers rising between 60% and 100% by 2038 compared to 2019 levels. 

The development of high-speed electric rail, which has far lower greenhouse gas emissions than air travel, is seen as one important way to reduce aviation emissions, although its construction needs to be carefully managed to avoid disruption of ecosystems. In some cases, high-speed lines have reduced aviation transport on the same routes by as much as 80%.  

China has invested heavily in high-speed rail lines over the past decade and boasts two-thirds of the world’s total. Its per capita aviation emissions are also small, although its aviation emissions are also expected to skyrocket in the coming decades. 

The US, which is a similar size to China, has little in the way of high speed rail, although there are several projects in development. These include a publicly funded project in California, which has struggled since the Trump administration cancelled $1 billion in federal support.

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The Green New Deal pack of resolutions in the US, proposed last year by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, outlined plans to build out high-speed rail in an apparent effort to make air travel within the country obsolete.

“Having rail alternatives where it’s feasible to do so is a very important piece of the puzzle,” says Petsonk. “But in many parts of the United States, we don’t have the rail infrastructure or it’s not feasible, and so people will want to continue to fly. So we need both.”

Policy proposals announced earlier this month by the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force also recommended the US’s “second great railroad revolution” be brought about by investing in high-speed rail. Joe Biden had previously promised in his June 2019 climate platform to ensure the US has “the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world”, and pledged new incentives to reduce aircraft emissions through sustainable fuels and other technology and standards.  

But Petsonk said engine design and aircraft design would only get the country so far, since even if each plane operates more efficiently, total emissions will still rise as air traffic rises.  

“We think that it’s very important to in addition have a limit on the total emissions of the flights, and incentives to drive those total emissions down,” she says. “And those could be through any number of means: flying less, flying better, flying with different fuels, using offsets. But the trajectory has to be the downward trajectory compatible with net zero [emissions] by 2050.”

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