COVID-19. Data on virus case numbers are aviation's lead indicator

As the number of global COVID -19 coronavirus cases continues to grow, world airline capacity declines are accelerating weekly.

Asia Pacific has been hardest hit, although the rate of seat decline has slowed, mainly reflecting a flattening of the curve of COVID-19 cases in China. By contrast, the rate of fall in Europe, Middle East and Africa is accelerating. North America is relatively stable so far, while Latin America capacity is still growing (but growth has slowed).

Current OAG schedules data (combined with seat configuration data from the CAPA Fleet Database) show a year-on-year fall in global seat capacity of -14.7% for the week of 16-Mar-2020 – the fastest drop so far this year. They also project that the decline will narrow to -4.0% by the end of Apr-2020.

However, these statistics inevitably lag reality, and will do so until forward looking schedules data fully reflect recent (and still evolving) airline plans to shrink further. Moreover, demand is falling faster than capacity.

World Health organisation data on COVID -19 cases are likely to remain the best (and only) lead indicator for aviation while the current crisis lasts.


The number of global COVID-19 coronavirus cases continues to grow

According to the World Health Organisation website, with data updated as at 23.59 CET on 19-Mar-2020, the cumulative number of reported COVID-19 cases is 234,000, up from 194,000 a day earlier (as shown in the graph below).

The chart of cumulative global cases appears still to be in a steepening phase.

The number of cases in China has been broadly stable, increasing only modestly over the past four or five weeks, with growth in global cases coming from countries outside China.

Cumulative global daily number of reported COVID-19 cases ('000), 2020


Weekly airline capacity decline driven by COVID-19 numbers

The rise in global numbers of COVID-19 cases broadly correlates with the decline in airline seat capacity globally.

Replotting the number of COVID-19 cases into weekly, rather than daily intervals, and reversing the axis so that an increase is shown as a downward movement, and showing also the year-on-year decline in weekly airline seats (taken from OAG data on the number of flights and CAPA data on aircraft seat capacities), the following chart illustrates this relationship.

The global number of airline seats in the OAG/CAPA database has dropped by 14.7% year-on-year for the week commencing 16-Mar-2020.

Extrapolating the 194,000 COVID-19 cases as at 18-Mar-2020 for the full week assuming the trend of the previous two weeks, whereby the increase in weekly numbers was more than twice the increase of the previous week, a figure approaching 270,000 might be expected by the end of the week.

Airline capacity decline is accelerating

The decline in airline seats for the week of 16-Mar-2020 is the greatest fall so far this year. The number of airline seats was increasing year-on-year until the week of 3-Feb-2020, when it fell by 2.4%.

The rate of decline became steeper as the number of cases grew, dropping to -9.7% in the week of 10-Feb-2020. The curve then flattened out around -10% for three weeks as the rate of increase in the number of COVID-19 cases (then still mainly confined to China) also flattened a little.

However, the rate of decline in airline seats has been accelerating since the week of 2-Mar-2020 as the rate of growth in COVID-19 cases has also steepened.

Cumulative global weekly number of reported COVID-19 cases ('000, in reverse order) and year-on-year change (%) in weekly scheduled airline seats, 2020


Asia Pacific has been worst affected, but the rate of fall has slowed a little.

Looking at year-on-year airline capacity development by region, Asia Pacific has been most affected, with seats numbers in the OAG/CAPA data down by 25.2% in the week of 16-Mar-2020.

The rate of decline in Asia Pacific has eased somewhat since hitting -29.4% in the week of 17-Feb-2020, reflecting the relative flattening of the COVID-19 curve in China, but it is still falling faster than in any other region.

Decline in Europe, Middle East and Africa is accelerating

However, the decline in seat numbers in Europe has accelerated to -19.0%, and in Middle East to -20.4%, in the week of 16-Mar-2020.

Capacity in Africa started to decline for the first time this week, dropping by 6.4%.

North America capacity relatively stable; Latin America still growing

Seat numbers in North America have remained fairly stable, but have been falling by less than 1% for the past three weeks, dropping by 0.4% in the week of 16-Mar-2020.

Latin America is the only region showing positive seat growth in every week of the year to date, reflecting its relatively fewer COVID-19 cases. (although, see also COVID19: Latin American airlines now dramatically cut capacity)

Year-on-year change (%) in weekly scheduled airline seats by region, 2020


Flows between regions: North America to Asia Pacific is falling fastest (-36%)

Focusing on capacity between the regions of the world, the biggest drop in capacity for the week of 16-Mar-2020 is recorded for North America to Asia Pacific (-36.4% year-on-year), Europe to Asia Pacific (-32.3%), and Asia Pacific to Africa (-23.8%).

Four other interregional flows have also fallen by more than 10% in seat capacity this week: Europe to Middle East (-17.8%), Asia Pacific to Middle East (-15.8%), Europe to Africa (-11.7%) and Middle East to Africa (-11.2%).

Year-on-year change (%) in weekly scheduled airline seats for flows between regions, part 1: worst affected, 2020

Some interregional flows have been reduced by less than 10%

Performing a little better so far, with declines of less than 10% in the week of 16-Mar-2020, are Latin America to Africa, North America to Middle East, Latin America to Middle East, Europe to Latin America, and North America to Latin America.

North America to Africa has continued with positive year-on-year seat growth throughout the year so far, although growth of 14.0% in the week of 16-Mar-2020 is the slowest yet.

Year-on-year change (%) in weekly scheduled airline seats for flows between regions, part 2: least affected, 2020

Capacity declines are projected to ease…

Current OAG schedules data, combined with CAPA seat configuration data, indicate that the rate of decline in seat numbers will start to narrow from next week (week commencing 23-Mar-2020), with the global decline easing back to -4.0% in the last week of Apr-2020.

Year-on-year change (%) in projected weekly scheduled airline seats by region to end Apr-2020


…but they lag reality

However, the data are understandably slow to reflect the true situation. Travel restrictions have been gathering pace.

The announced US ban on European nationals entering the US and the European Union's clampdown on non-EU nationals entering the bloc are not fully reflected in data filed with OAG.

Many European airlines have announced planned capacity cuts of 75% to 90% in the coming weeks. However, around the world, plans could be further extended to even more extreme cuts.

A growing list of airlines are suspending all operations in the coming weeks. Ryanair, Europe's largest airline group by passenger numbers, said on 18-Mar-2020 that it would ground nearly all flights as of next week (week commencing 23-Mar-2020). In the US, Delta is planning 70% capacity cuts.

Until forward-looking schedules data fully reflect recent (and still evolving) plans by airlines to cut more capacity, they serve no purpose as lead indicators.

Demand is falling faster than capacity

Furthermore, capacity does not reflect demand. The year to date figures on seat numbers do not tell the full story.

Even in Feb-2020, for example, when Europe to Asia Pacific seat numbers fell by 13.9% year-on-year, Air France-KLM carried 24.5% fewer passengers and suffered a 9.6ppt drop in load factor to/from the region.

For Mar-2020, when capacity declines are much steeper than in Feb-2020, traffic figures for the industry are likely to show substantially worse falls in passenger numbers than in capacity.

Data on COVID-19 cases are the best lead indicator for aviation

Those looking for early signs of an improvement in the outlook for the aviation industry do not have a lot to go on.

It is likely that the World Health Organisation data on the reported number of COVID-19 cases significantly understates, and lags behind, the true number. Nevertheless, the WHO data are likely to be the best lead indicator for aviation.

However, even when the number of cases shows signs of passing a peak, there is likely to be a lag before capacity returns, and another lag before passenger traffic matches capacity.

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