After the SARS epidemic in 2003, which infected 8,422 and killed an estimated 774 people before vanishing entirely in 2004, it took air travel around China and Hong Kong three years to recover, and many small local airlines never did. At the time, SARS was a boogeyman, a source of international fear despite its small footprint.

COVID-19, which is also a SARS disease, has really put that outbreak in perspective. As of the last week in July, the disease has infected a confirmed 16.8 million, with over 227,000 new cases each day and over 660,000 deaths. The impact, this time, is expected to ripple on for a long, long time to come.

On July 28, 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that it doesn’t expect global air travel to recover until 2024, and it still regards that as an optimistic prediction. The organization forecasts that international passenger traffic will drop 55 percent in 2020, compared to 2019.

“Passenger traffic hit bottom in April, but the strength of the upturn has been very weak,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of IATA. “What improvement we have seen has been domestic flying.”

Pre-COVID-19 predictions had foreseen a rise in global air travel, especially to Eastern Asia. Numbers are expected to bounce back a little next year, but only to a little over 70 percent of 2019.

“Consumer confidence is depressed,” said de Juniac, and not just because of international closures that prevent people from flying. Planes and airports are seen as infection hotspots, and for good reason. Crowded, confined spaces with recycled, moving air are considered the highest-risk venues for catching the exhalation-borne disease.

“Summer—our industry’s busiest season—is passing by rapidly,” said de Juniac, adding that there was “little chance for an upswing in international air travel unless governments move quickly and decisively to find alternatives to border closures, confidence-destroying stop-start re-openings and demand-killing quarantine.”

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