Eurocontrol says Irish air travel ‘worst affected’ in Europe last year

Ryanair does best of all European airlines in December, but Ireland still lags European average

Irish air travel suffered more from Covid-19 restrictions than any other European country last year, according to the latest assessment of the pandemic’s impact on aviation.

More than 600 flights took off or landed in the Republic as the Christmas holidays wound down on Sunday, figures from European air navigation body Eurocontrol show.

The organisation says Irish aviation suffered worst from the pandemic in a report covering all of its region, which includes Georgia, Israel, Morocco and Ukraine.

According to Eurocontrol, the Republic lost 183,000 flights last year compared to 2019, a 62 per cent decline in traffic.

Eurocontrol’s report dubs the Republic “the most affected state” in its region in 2021. It blames the high number of flights between here and Britain in 2019, when those routes accounted for four out of 10 journeys.

The Government imposed some of Europe’s toughest anti-travel measures during the pandemic, including controversial hotel quarantines that hit workers employed by multinational companies.

The State waited until July 17th to adopt the EU’s digital Covid certificate, meant to reinforce European citizens’ right to freedom of travel, making it the last EU member state to do so.

The Government travel policies angered key aviation interests, including leading Irish carriers Aer Lingus and Ryanair, and trade unions such as Fórsa and Siptu.

Eurocontrol's figures show that UK air travel took a similar hit to the Republic, shedding 1.3 million flights or 62 per cent of 2019 totals. Within the EU, Denmark and Sweden also saw flight numbers fall by around 60 per cent.

Popular holiday destinations including Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, all suffered far less, losing less than half their 2019 totals during the year. During the summer these countries recovered much of the ground lost to restrictions, with Greece reclaiming 94 per cent of pre-pandemic flights in August, Eurocontrol says.

Daily journeys

Europe’s best performing airline was Ryanair, which averaged 2,025 flights a day last month, against 2,028 daily journeys in December 2019.

Travel continued through Christmas and the new year against the background of rising Covid-19 numbers, driven by the Omicron strain of the virus.

Irish air travel continues to lag the rest of Europe, but the new year figures indicate that it has begun closing the gap. Eurocontrol's figures show that 612 commercial aircraft flew in or out of the Republic on Sunday, January 2nd. That was 80 per cent of the 759 flights in the State on the same date on 2019.

Overall, flights in Eurocontrol’s area hit 22,197 on January 2nd. This was 85 per cent of the 26,200 aircraft that landed or took off in the region on the same day in 2019, which Eurocontrol uses as a benchmark.

Eurocontrol calculates that airlines lost €18.5 billion last year while carrying around 1.5 billion fewer passengers.

The organisation says that there were 4.9 million fewer flights across Europe last year than in 2019, a fall of 44 per cent. However, that estimate includes the early part of 2021, when widespread restrictions left air travel at just one third of 2019 levels.

Vaccination and the introduction of the EU Covid certificate aided recovery through the second half of the year.

Eurocontrol says that air travel could recover to 90 per cent of 2019 levels this year. However, the recent rise of the most transmissible Omicron strain prompted countries to impose further restrictions, clouding the picture.

“The evolving pandemic has seen traffic fall away from our optimistic forecast to converge increasingly on our baseline forecast,” says Eurocontrol.