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    International air travel may return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023, a year earlier than forecast

    ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES – International air travel is likely to return to pre-pandemic levels sooner than expected, with most of Asia opening up quickly and international passenger numbers rebounding to 42 per cent of 2019 levels in the first quarter of this year.

    Director-General of the International Air Transport Association (Iata) Willie Walsh said on Monday that the industry might even hit 2019 levels by 2023, sooner than its previous forecast of 2024.

    He said international travel has nearly doubled from the 24.5 per cent last year, and that figures in the first four to five months of this year have exceeded predictions – including by airlines – and are set to keep growing.

    This is despite China’s and Hong Kong’s continued Covid-19 restrictions, which he said could lead to shifts in global air network growth towards Southeast Asia and Singapore, allowing the Republic to quickly gain ground on Hong Kong’s pre-pandemic lead.

    Walsh was in Singapore ahead of the Changi Aviation Summit, with Iata expected to release a report later this week with revised forecasts.

    The industry might even hit 2019 levels by 2023, sooner than its previous forecast of 2024. PHOTO: ST FILE

    China’s closure put the brakes on domestic air travel, which only inched up from 72 per cent last year to 76 per cent this year, but this should not be a major concern for airlines, he said.

    “Airlines will gradually rebuild in the markets and that’s why I don’t see the Chinese market as a critical issue at this stage. It truly becomes more relevant only as we go through the recovery later. There are a lot of markets that are available to airlines in the region to recover into where there is strong demand,” Walsh said.

    Where it matters is airlines possibly adopting a more cautious approach to resuming operations in China and Hong Kong than before, he added.

    With airlines currently rebuilding their networks, Singapore’s relatively predictable and open travel policies mean it is in a good position to capture any fallout, said the Iata Chief.

    “People will be concerned about what they witnessed in China: the speed at which borders were closed, the constant change of the regulations in China and what that meant for airlines,” he added.

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