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The global consulting and technology services firm ICF International now projects that full commercial aviation recovery from the devastation of COVID-19 won’t begin until “beyond” 2021, adding some regions like Asia-Pacific will likely return to pre-crisis traffic sooner than others.

“We are forecasting global passenger demand to recover in about four years, with the recovery led by domestic and regional markets, and long-haul traffic lagging a year or two behind,” the ICF report, COVID-19 Air Passenger Recovery Phases and Forecasts, concluded.

ICF said the industry’s biggest challenge will be overcoming an unprecedented demand drop in 2020 and 2021, noting airlines, airports and other industry stakeholders have large fixed and semi-fixed cost structures that are not designed to withstand a drop in demand of this magnitude.

The report breaks down the gradual recovery of aviation demand into three phases: The current two-to-three month quarantine phase, followed by a “pre-recovery” phase that is expected to last 6-18 months and include the return of domestic traffic with social distancing practices in place.

ICF said this “pre-recovery” phase should be characterized by network realignment and fleet optimization to serve market segments likely to prove most resilient.  “Companies will need to take significant steps to ‘right-size’ their business to make it through the ‘pre-recovery phase’ and be well-positioned for the ensuing recovery,” it added.

The final, full “recovery” phase will be characterized by full border openings and the decline of social distancing, albeit with new sanitary practices in place. By 2023, ICF projects that aviation industry will be back to 2019 levels, with 2024-2027 expected to have modest single-digit annual growth.

“We do, however, anticipate different recovery speeds beyond 2021 as we move into a ‘full recovery phase,’ with Asia-Pacific reaching pre-crisis traffic soonest, while Latin America and Africa are forecast to recover last,” the ICF report said.

The report did offer some broad recommendations for aviation industry stakeholders, including airports, to navigate the current global economic disruption.

For airports, ICF recommends a facility assessment to identify opportunities for partial facility closures to reduce operating expenses and defer capital expense,  promoting routes that should be resilient during the “pre-recovery phase,” adapting commercial program and contracts to balance tenant viability with revenue generation, and a strong communications strategy, backed by concrete and effective health safety measures, to win back customer confidence.