No recovery for UK air traffic in 2021 as pandemic continues

25 January 2022

Air traffic figures for 2021 show the UK aviation industry is still struggling to recover from the pandemic, with numbers changing little from 2020 and showing continued volatility. Despite the peaks and troughs as the industry responded to changing COVID guidelines at home and in overseas markets, overall volumes have been depressed now for two years.  

2021 air traffic averaged just 41% of pre-pandemic figures, mirroring 2020’s 40% average. This is despite shoots of optimism as routes to the USA re-opened and vaccinated passengers were permitted to travel overseas, although destinations were subject to frequent change, often with little or no warning. This often left little time for the industry to respond and as a critical part of the industry infrastructure, NATS had to remain prepared for traffic levels that frequently didn’t materialise. 

Overall, just 1,062,945 flights were managed by NATS in 2021, similar to the 1,028,254 flights in 2020, both significantly less than 2019 flight numbers, which were more than 2.5 million.  

December 2021 saw 69% of 2019 traffic levels as passengers travelled during the festive season. 17 December was the busiest day of the year with 5,346 flights (77% of 2019) and December was the third busiest month of 2021 with 130,070 flights handled. October was the busiest month overall in 2021, with 139,716 flights (61% of 2019), as travel restrictions were eased before the Omicron variant resulted in further constraints.  

Several airports also saw their busiest day of the year in December: Heathrow on 19 December with 950 flights, Luton (385 flights) and Stansted (474 flights) on 17 December.  

The UK recovery has lagged behind Europe, largely due to Government restrictions and European restrictions on UK travel. European Network traffic in 2021 was 56% of 2019 levels compared to the UK’s 41%. 

Juliet Kennedy, Operations Director, NATS, said: “2021 was another memorable year for all of us at NATS. It was a challenging task to plan for the many twists and turns that Covid presented, with the Delta and Omicron variants and subsequent changes to travel restrictions and self-isolation rules. Fortunately, robust health and safety management meant that Covid-related staff shortages did not unduly disrupt our operations. Our air traffic controllers, engineers and support staff overcame all the challenges thrown at them to continue to provide safe and efficient services for airlines, airports and airspace users. 

“Traffic has unfortunately decreased again in the New Year. With forecasts not predicting a full recovery for a number of years, we’ve still got a long way to go before the industry is back on its feet. However, experts are predicting that we’re near the beginning of the end of the pandemic, and everyone at NATS is ready to respond to increasing levels of traffic when people are ready to fly again.”  


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