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Over 4 Billion Passengers Flew In 2017 Setting New Travel Record

The International Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade association with 290 member airlines, has released its 62nd annual report on travel statistics for 2017. Among other findings, IATA reports that a record number of travelers flew in 2017 between more city pairs than ever, and that Asia-Pacific is the region to watch in terms of sheer numbers of people flying and air traffic in general.

The most significant figure released was that a record-breaking 4.1 billion passengers flew on scheduled airline services last year. That was 280 million more than in 2016, representing a 7.3% increase year over year. Note that this does not mean that 4.1 billion individuals flew. Rather, it means that there were 4.1 billion passengers, which means that one person who flew six times, for instance, counts as six passengers. The figures are still staggering, though.

More people traveled between more city pairs than ever in 2017.

Asia-Pacific Leads By Sheer Volume

Here’s how those passenger numbers broke down regionally, with rankings based on the total number of passengers carried on scheduled services by airlines registered in each region. Asia-Pacific saw both the highest numbers of overall passengers and the largest year-over-year jump in traffic.

  1. Asia-Pacific: 1.5 billion passengers, 36.3% market share, +10.6%
  2. Europe: 1.1 billion passengers, 26.3% market share, +8.2%
  3. North America: 941.8 million passengers, 23% market share, +3.2%
  4. Latin America: 286.1 million passengers, 7% market share, +4.1%
  5. Middle East: 216.1 million passengers, 5.3% market share, +4.6%
  6. Africa: 88.5 million passengers, 2.2% market share, +6.6% over 2016

Unsurprisingly, both the five busiest international airline routes and top five domestic routes between airport pairs were also all in the Asia-Pacific region. Here’s how those rankings stacked up with total passengers listed.

  1. Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) – Taipei Taoyuan (TPE): 5.4 million
  2. Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta (CGK) – Singapore Changi (SIN): 3.3 million
  3. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK) – Hong Kong International Airport (HKG): 3.1 million
  4. Kuala Lumpur (KUL) – Singapore Changi (SIN): 2.8 million
  5. Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) – Seoul Incheon (ICN): 2.7 million

These rankings were dominated by two airports in particular, Hong Kong International Airport and Singapore Changi, and routes that are international, though still regional within Asia.

Hong Kong International Airport saw three of the five busiest international routes in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, all five of the busiest domestic airline routes were also within Asia-Pacific, with the number two route bucking the Asia-dominant trend as it is Australia’s workhorse connection between Sydney Kingsford Smith (SYD) and Melbourne Tullamarine (MEL). Once again, however, the route between Seoul Gimpo (GMP) and Jeju International Airport (CJU) topped this particular list, with 13.5 million passengers over the year.

U.S. Airlines (and Fliers) Are The World’s Busiest

IATA noted that the “average citizen” flies once every 22 months now, compared to once every 43 months in 2000, and that 20,000 city pairs are now connected by scheduled air service, which is more than double the figure from 20 years ago.

However, the busiest airlines and the passengers who fly the most are in the United States. One of the more interesting rankings released was the total scheduled passenger distance flown in 2017, a list that was dominated by U.S. airlines.

  1. American Airlines: 324 million
  2. Delta Air Lines: 316.3 million
  3. United Airlines: 311 million
  4. Emirates: 289 million
  5. Southwest Airlines: 207.7 million

The only non-U.S. carrier included was Emirates, ranking far below the three major U.S. legacy airlines, and likely on the list because of how many long-haul flights that airline operates.

American Airlines was the carrier with the most scheduled passenger distance flown last year.

Americans were also the most frequent fliers by nationality and represented nearly a fifth of the total air traffic in 2017. Note that these figures are not simply the number of unique passengers that flew, but rather the tally of passenger journeys, so one person might account for several journeys depending on how much they traveled last year. Here’s how the totals of fliers by nationality (not by residence) shaped up.

  1. United States of America: 632 million, 18.6% of all passengers
  2. People’s Republic of China: 555 million, 16.3% of all passengers
  3. India: 161.5 million, 4.7% of all passengers
  4. United Kingdom: 147 million, 4.3% of all passengers
  5. Germany: 114.4 million, 3.5%

The United States and China account for over a third of all passenger traffic in the world and seem to set China on course to become the largest aviation market sooner than IATA’s most recent projections, which had that taking place around 2024. India also overtook the U.K. as the third-largest source of passenger traffic much sooner than IATA’s earlier projection of 2025.

More Traffic, Growing Faster

The numbers released by IATA present a few startling statistics with wide-ranging implications for the travel industry.

Most stark is that air traffic is increasing much faster than anyone expected, with tremendous growth in emerging Asian markets. That is likely thanks to the preponderance of new low-cost carriers that put travel within reach of burgeoning middle-class populations as well as significant infrastructure investments by governments in the region to bring traffic to their hub airports.

We’re only going to see more people flying in the coming years, meaning more congestion and more environmental issues.

The second is that even mature markets like the U.S. and Europe are seeing huge growth in flight and passenger numbers, signaling both the unfettered growth in aviation that is likely to continue for years to come as well as a measure of economic certainty that prompts people to travel for both business and leisure reasons.

All this will present enormous challenges both to the aviation industry and the world population in general in the coming years. Those issues will include the environmental effects of exponentially more air travel, even in the near future. Increasing congestion at airports around the world will also be a major sticking point. Finally, the economic implications of more competition among airlines even as more passengers are flying are yet to be seen, as is whether aircraft manufacturers will be able to predict and keep up with sharply increasing demand for planes.

IATA CEO and Director General Alexandre de Juniac casts a positive light on it all, though, saying, “Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure and education.” Hopefully they will be able to do so in a way that impacts our planet for the better.