The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned that the gradual recovery in global air travel could be threatened by government responses to the Omicron variant o f Covid-19.

The association said that there had been continued “broad-based improvements in both domestic and international markets” in October 2021, albeit with total demand for air travel still down nearly 50 per cent compared to October 2019.

Domestic markets continue to lead the recovery, with demand (measured in revenue passenger kilometres) down 21.6 per cent compared to October 2019, while international demand was down 65.5 per cent – an improvement on the 69 per cent figure for September.

IATA’s director general Willie Walsh said that “October’s traffic performance reinforces that people will travel when they are permitted to”.

But he warned that government responses to the emergence of the Omicron variant – which have included a ban on flights to and from a number of African countries – “are putting at risk the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild”.

“The lifting of the US restrictions on travel from some 33 countries last month raised hopes that a surge in pent-up travel demand would buoy traffic over the coming Northern Hemisphere winter, said Walsh.

“But the emergence of the Omicron variant panicked many governments into once again restricting or entirely removing the freedom to travel – even though WHO clearly advised that ‘blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods’.

“The logic of the WHO advice was evident within days of Omicron’s identification in South Africa, with its presence already confirmed in all continents. The ill-advised travel bans are as ineffective as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

“Additionally, governments must address the terrible disparity in vaccination rates that has seen the developed world offering boosters at a time when less than 10 per cent of the African continent is fully vaccinated.”

Last month IATA published a policy paper entitled From Restart to Recovery: A Blueprint for Simplifying Travel, calling on governments to “safely and efficiently manage the ramping-up of international travel” through a focus on three key areas: simplified health protocols, digital solutions to process health credentials, and Covid-19 measures proportionate to risk levels with a continuous review process.

IATA calls on governments to simplify air travel