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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Airlines probably retained on average just $5.44 (about R102) per passenger and have had a net profit margin of just 2.6% in 2023 despite a return to profitability by industry in general after the knock it took during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“This net profit margin is far below what investors in almost any other industry would accept,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s director-general, said in an address at the industry body’s Global Media Day in Geneva.

That amount, he said, is not nearly enough to make the industry resilient in the wake of the pandemic, which cost the it about four years of growth.

“From 2024 the outlook indicates that we can expect more normal growth patterns for both passenger and cargo,” said Walsh.

Total air traffic is within 2% to 2.5% of its 2019 level, according to Andrew Matters, IATA’s director of policy and standards, sustainability and economics.

“We are just about there in terms of traffic. Given the share of fuel as part of airline costs, we are keeping a close eye on the oil and jet fuel market,” Matters said in his presentation.

IATA expects the jet fuel price to average $113.8 a barrel in 2024 — a total fuel bill of about $281bn for the industry — or about 31% of airlines’ operating costs.

IATA expects African airlines to show a combined net loss of about $500m this year and narrowing to about $400m in 2024.

Still, IATA said passenger demand on the continent was robust and is expected to increase by about 7.3% in 2024 compared with 2023 levels. That would be 3% higher than before the pandemic struck in 2019. Airline capacity on the continent is expected to be 9.4% higher in 2024 compared with 2023 and also 3% more than before the pandemic in 2019.

Tough in Africa

Africa remains a difficult market for airlines to operate in, with the biggest challenges being to economic situations, infrastructure and connectivity, IATA said.

On a global level, airlines face challenges such as a crunch in the delivery of new aircraft — a situation Walsh said was “frustrating”. Airlines also have been affected by unforeseen maintenance issues on some aircraft or engine types as well as delays in the delivery of aircraft parts and of aircraft, limiting their capacity expansion and fleet renewal.

Another important topic raised by Walsh is sustainability. IATA expects the industry will increase its use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and carbon credits to reduce its carbon footprint. SAF could account for 0.53% of airlines’ total fuel consumption in 2024 (at a total cost of $2.4bn).

Walsh also mentioned a focus on increasing diversity in the aviation industry — especially in technical jobs — as well as increasing accessibility for people with disabilities.

As for ticket prices, IATA’s data shows competition continues to drive benefits for consumers. The average real return fare in 2023 is expected to have been about 20% lower than that of 2019, despite rising costs, especially oil.

Another aspect Walsh raised was the importance of accountability when delays occur at airports. An IATA survey indicated that 91% of passengers agreed that all parties involved in the delays should play a role in helping affected passengers — not just the airlines.

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