Because of COVID-19, traditional, large cities suffer, while cities with large numbers of domestic connections now dominate. One of the great challenges to the international airline industry wrought by the COVID-19 crisis is the weakened connectivity of the major airports and the major airlines that serve them. Without an action plan to address the question of connectivity (and the gaps that have weakened it), the situation is bound to get worse for those who plan, and plan on, the connections that are critical for international long-haul travel.
This is the strong impression one receives in reviewing the findings of a report that was released at the recent 76th Annual General Meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Originally planned to take place in Amsterdam in June 2020, the meeting was pushed back to the end of November in Geneva.
The IATA report released data declaring that the COVID-19 crisis “has had a devastating impact on international connectivity, shaking up the rankings of the world’s most connected cities.” As evidence, it cited the following:
—London, the world’s number one most connected city in September 2019, has seen a 67 percent decline in connectivity. By September 2020, it had fallen to number eight.
—Shanghai is now the top ranked city for connectivity with the top four most connected cities all in China—Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
—New York (a 66 percent decline in connectivity); Tokyo (down 65 percent), Bangkok (down 81 percent), Hong Kong (an 81 percent drop-off) and Seoul (a 69 percent decline) have all exited the top ten.
—Cities with large numbers of domestic connections now dominate, showing the extent to which international connectivity has been shut down. The following table compares the year-on-year ranking difference in major cities—from September 2019 to September 2020.
Commenting on the findings, Sebastian Mikosz, IATA’s senior vice president for member external relations, said in a statement: “The dramatic shift in the connectivity rankings demonstrates the scale at which the world’s connectivity has been re-ordered over the last months. But the important point is that rankings did not shift because of any improvement in connectivity. That declined overall in all markets. The rankings shifted because the scale of the decline was greater for some cities than others. There are no winners, just some players that suffered fewer injuries. In a short period of time we have undone a century of progress in bringing people together and connecting markets. The message we must take from this study is the urgent need to re-build the global air transport network.”
Measuring Air Connectivity: IATA’s air connectivity index measures how well connected a country’s cities are to other cities around the world, which is critical for trade, tourism, investment and other economic flows. It is a composite measure reflecting the number of seats flown to the destinations served from a country’s major airports and the economic importance of those destinations.
COVID-19 impacts on connectivity by region
(April 2019-April 2020, IATA Connectivity Index measure)
Africa suffered a 93 percent decline in connectivity. Ethiopia managed to buck the trend. During the first peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Ethiopia maintained connections with 88 international destinations. Many aviation markets reliant on tourism, such as Egypt, South Africa and Morocco, were particularly severely impacted.
Asia-Pacific saw a 76 percent decline in connectivity. Stronger domestic aviation markets, such as China, Japan and South Korea performed better among the most connected countries in the region. Despite the relatively large domestic aviation market, Thailand was severely impacted perhaps because of the country’s high reliance on international tourism.
Europe experienced a 93 percent fall in connectivity. European countries saw significant declines across most markets, although Russian connectivity has held up better than Western European countries.
Middle East countries saw connectivity decline by 88 percent. With the exception of Qatar, connectivity levels reduced by more than 85 percent for the five most connected countries in the region. Despite border closures, Qatar allowed passengers to transit between flights. It was also an important hub for air cargo.
North American connectivity declined 73 percent. Canada’s connectivity (-85 percent decline) was hit more heavily than the United States (-72 percent). In part, this reflects the large domestic aviation market in the United States, which despite a significant passenger decline, has continued to support connectivity.
Latin America suffered a 91 percent collapse in connectivity. Mexico and Chile performed relatively better than the other most connected countries, perhaps due to the timing of domestic lockdowns in these countries and how strictly they were enforced.
Before the pandemic
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth in air connectivity was a global success story. Over the last two decades the number of cities directly linked by air (city-pair connections) more than doubled while over the same period, air travel costs fell by around half.
The top-ten most connected countries in the world mostly saw significant increases over the 2014-2019 period. The United States remained the most connected country, with growth of 26%. China, in second place, grew connectivity by 62 percent. Other standout performers in the top ten included fourth-place India (+89 percent) and ninth-place Thailand (+percent). For more information: Full Air Connectivity report (pdf)