‘Irrepressible’ Air Travel Defies Global Economic Growth Slump

China drove massive growth in airline passenger traffic last year.
Photographer: Getty Images

For all the world’s economic malaise, there’s a bright spot above the clouds: Airline passenger traffic grew 6.4 percent last year, the most in five years. 

Total passengers rose across all major regions to 7.2 billion, almost the population of the planet, according to Airports Council International, the industry’s Montreal-based trade association. And as with the global economy, China is a dominant force for growth.

Asia-Pacific airports handled the most, with trips up 8.6 percent to 2.46 billion, while the Middle East increased the fastest, climbing 9.6 percent to 334 million. 

“Growth in passenger traffic approached the pre-recessionary growth levels that were seen in 2004 to 2007,” ACI said in its annual report. “International tourism in particular was irrepressible in 2015, even considering the geopolitical risks that persisted in certain parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”

While the BRICS economies -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- have faced their own varying challenges, they still posted strong growth of 8.2 percent in passenger traffic last year and their 1.5 billion passengers accounted for 21.4 percent of global traffic, ACI said. 

One of the biggest driving forces has been China. There, Beijing's airport held the No. 2 rank with passengers up 4.4 percent to 89.9 million last year, trailing Atlanta's 5.5 percent increase to 101.5 million.  

"On the back of a growing middle class in key emerging markets, the significant growth of intercontinental hubs in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East reveals that air transport’s nucleus continues to move eastward," ACI said in its roundup. "Despite the slowing of economic growth in China, its move away from an investment-led economy to a consumption-driven economy will further stimulate air transport demand over the long run."

To be sure, threats to air travel growth include geopolitical unrest and terrorism plus bottlenecks if the physical capacity of transport infrastructure doesn't keep up, ACI Director General Angela Gittens said in the report. She warned of "protectionist policies that retreat from further economic integration," echoing concerns voiced at the Group of 20 leaders summit this month in China.



— With assistance by Jeff Kearns, and Yan Zhang

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