December was 2021’s busiest month for air travel, with 2.43 million flights operated globally, according to data from aviation analyst at Cirium. This despite the rash of cancelations in the last weeks of the month due to the surge of the omicron variant worldwide.
According to the company’s On-Time Performance Review 2021, global flights flown increased 1.5 percent week-over-week from December 11-17, before the spike in omicron cases. However the following week, global flights were down 5 percent.
As omicron cases combined with operational challenges such as winter weather, cancelations surged, with over 59,240 flights cancelled globally from December 24 to January 3 – the most flight cancelations seen in the month of December for the past decade. A total of 20,500 flight cancelled in the first three days of 2022.
In the US, nearly 7,040 flights cancelled over this period by American Airlines, Delta, Southwest Airlines and United. These were driven by staffing shortages among flight personnel and ground crews.
The disruptions over the holiday travel period come as airline capacity struggles to rebound from its 2020 lows. According to a separate Cirium analysis, the pandemic and its consequences wiped out 15 years of global passenger capacity growth, reducing the total number of seats flown in 2020 to levels last seen in 2005.
That report, issued prior to the current omicron surge, predicted that global air capacity would rebound in 2022 to levels equivalent to the number of seats flown in 2015. How the recent pullback in travel will impact those forecasts remains to be seen.
“Flight disruptions affect airlines and airports differently – it depends on the availability and flexibility of equipment and resources in place to react quickly,” Jeremy Bowen, CEO at Cirium, commented.
“Those that plan more conservatively will minimize their operational disruptions. Cirium monitors the level of disruption by measuring completion factor of flights and their on-time performance.”
The report also showed that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was the busiest global airport based on departing flights with 336,890 in 2021. Amsterdam Schipol Airport saw a total of 123,070 departing flights, making it the busiest airport for international flights in 2021.
American Airlines flew the most flights last year, operating approximately 1,850,050.
See the full report here.
Meanwhile airlines are already adjusting schedules in January and February, with Alaska Airline alone trimming its January departures by some 10 percent in the coming weeks.