Europe’s air traffic won’t recover to pre-Covid levels until 2026, according to the latest forecast by Eurocontrol, the European air traffic management organisation.

Eurocontrol reported Europe’s flight numbers are “on course” to track the middle of three recovery scenarios the organisation published in November – a forecast which assumes vaccination is “widely available” or the pandemic ends by summer 2022.

The organisation suggests traffic will return to 92% of 2019 levels by 2024, but may only recover to just over half (51%) of the 2019 level this year.

Eurocontrol noted “last year saw traffic at 44% of 2019 levels” and warned: “Traffic in 2021 might only be marginally better than if no progress on vaccines had been made.

“Under the expected recovery scenario, the availability of vaccines makes a negligible difference to flight numbers in 2021 versus the worst-case scenario of no vaccines being rolled out.”

The most-optimistic of Eurocontrol’s three scenarios forecast a recovery to 2019 levels of traffic by 2024 and the most-pessimistic a recovery only by 2029.

The more-optimistic scenario assumes vaccines will be “widely available” by this summer and full-year flight numbers reach 73% of 2019 levels. But Eurocontrol described this as “less realistic”.

The least-optimistic forecast assumes the vaccine roll-out is not completed “across all population sectors and countries for quite some time”.

Eurocontrol said its latest forecast “factors in likely progressive vaccine deployment across Europe” during 2021, but not “full [vaccine] coverage” or the “disappearance” of Covid-19 in the next 12 months.

It pointed out: “Vaccines are here now but will take considerable time to roll out.”

The organisation warned: “Substantial failures will occur in 2021”

Eurocontrol said there would need to be “substantial support to the entire industry”, arguing: “State support is needed to support the wider aviation value chain, especially airports.”

It also argued: “Airlines and airports need clarity on slot exemptions to plan.”

The majority of airlines are seeking an extension of the existing EU-UK waiver of ‘use it or lose it’ rules on airport slots through this summer, but Ryanair and Wizz Air have demanded the waiver be dropped.

Eurocontrol reported European air traffic in 2020 ended 55% down for the year on 2019, with half the aircraft in Europe (51%) grounded at the end of December.

It noted that since the lowest point of operations in April 2020, “the recovery in the number of passengers has been significantly weaker than that of flights”.

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