Logo StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada Canadian aviation amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Part 2. Impact on various flying activities

by Valeriya Mordvinova

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Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to aviation. Air transportation is all about connecting the world through the movement of people and goods. At the start of the pandemic, the movement of people by air was essentially stopped by public health measures and travel restrictions implemented around the world to combat the spread of the virus. In response, airlines grounded their fleets and laid off employees. While passenger numbers and revenues both dwindled, high fixed costs remained, resulting in financial losses. A number of airlines around the world had to file bankruptcy,Note while others have been kept on financial life support from governments.Note

Beyond the airlines, the pandemic touched every aspect of aviation. For instance, airports and air navigation service providers lost revenue as the number of passengers and flights decreased. Flight training units in many countries, including Canada, were closed for a period of time as “non-essential” businesses. General aviation activity declined as people were asked to stay home.

This is the second in a series of articles that examines the impact of COVID-19 on aviation in Canada and looks for signs of recovery up to the end of 2021. The first article examined the impact on Canada’s large and medium air carriers and found that passenger airlines bore the brunt of this impact, while the increased demand for air cargo was insufficient to offset this decline. This second article focuses on the impacts across various types of flying activities and compares their speed of recovery. After a brief overview of data and methods, the article examines a breadth of flying activities and finds that those such as general aviation, flight training, aerial work and smaller air carriers were able to recover faster than the larger airlines.

Data and methods

Statistics Canada’s Aircraft Movement Statistics (AMS) use administrative data from NAV CANADA – Canada’s air navigation service provider – on aircraft movements at the 90 airports with NAV CANADA control towers and flight service stations (FSS). Only data on itinerant movementsNote are used in this analysis covering the period from 2018 through 2021. The population of airports does not cover all registered aerodromes in Canada (of which there are about 2,000), but only those with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS. This has some impact on the analysis, which is explained in the results section. Data published in the AMS are not seasonally adjusted. To deal with seasonality, and to make variables with different levels comparable to each other, percentage changes from the same month of pre-pandemic 2019 were calculated for several graphs.

Air carriers that transport passengers and cargo in Canada are classified as airline, commuter or air taxi operators based on the size of aircraft operated. Flight training units train pilots for licences and ratings, while aerial work operators are engaged in other commercial air services, such as aerial survey, crop dusting and aerial firefighting. Corporate, or business, aviation involves the transportation of employees by the company or by a corporate aviation company for hire. General aviation refers to private aircraft being flown by their owners.Note This article focuses on all these flying activities. They are supported by air navigation service providers (in Canada it is NAV CANADA), airports, fixed base operators and aircraft maintenance organizations, whose activities are outside the scope of this article.

While AMS do not group data by the types of flying activity as defined above (i.e. airline, commuter, air taxi, aerial work, flight training, corporate aviation and general aviation), it has categories that can serve as proxies due to their correlations with the type of flying activity. These groupings are by flight rules, engine category, and type of operation.

Results

Aircraft movements under visual flight rules lead recovery

Every flight is conducted in accordance with either visual or instrument flight rules. Visual flight rules (VFR) flights must be conducted with visual reference to the surface of the earth, and the weather conditions must meet specific requirements which vary depending on the airspace classification (controlled or uncontrolled), time of the day (day or night) and altitude of flight. These flights include most general aviation flights, most flight training, a number of aerial work applications (such as aerial survey and crop dusting), and some air taxi operations. Instrument flight rules (IFR) flights are conducted with reference to flight instruments and can fly in cloud or low visibility. These flights include airline and commuter flights, corporate aviation, a portion of air taxi operations, some aerial work, and some general aviation and training flights.

At airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS, almost two-thirds of itinerant aircraft movements pre-pandemic (65% in 2018 and 63% in 2019) were by IFR flights. This does not represent all the flights taking place in Canada. The percentage of IFR movements at aerodromes without control towers or FSS would be lower, because much of the general aviation and flight training activity takes place at those aerodromes, and those are primarily VFR flights. The majority of activity at airports with control towers or FSS, on the other hand, is by air carriers who operate under IFR. Since data for aerodromes without control towers or FSS are not available, this analysis will focus on those airports included in AMS.

Chart 1 shows the percentage changes from the same month of 2019 in VFR and IFR itinerant aircraft movements at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS. Both IFR and VFR flights were largely curtailed in April 2020 amid public health measures such as physical distancing and advisories to stay home. IFR movements remained well below pre-pandemic levels for many months, but recovered steadily beginning in the summer of 2021 to reach 75% of 2019 level in December 2021.

Chart 1 Percentage change from the same month of 2019 in itinerant aircraft movements by flight rules at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and flight service stations, monthly, 2020 to 2021

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 Visual flight rules and Instrument flight rules, calculated using percentage change from same month of 2019 units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Visual flight rules Instrument flight rules
percentage change from same month of 2019
2020
January -9.3 -3.4
February 28.4 1.5
March -36.3 -25.3
April -68.5 -74.7
May -55.9 -74.1
June -35.9 -66.8
July -26.7 -61.4
August -13.1 -59.6
September -11.9 -57.5
October -17.0 -56.2
November -1.5 -55.7
December -3.4 -54.0
2021
January -2.8 -59.2
February -2.7 -61.6
March -8.4 -62.4
April -3.3 -62.1
May -18.0 -62.4
June -16.3 -57.1
July -18.2 -48.6
August -17.6 -39.1
September -7.5 -32.0
October -16.1 -29.2
November 1.3 -26.1
December -8.6 -25.1

VFR movements began recovering much earlier, in May 2020, and reached over 95% of pre-pandemic levels in some months of 2021. After two months of closure, flight training began resuming in May and June 2020, with timing varying by province. In later lockdowns, flight training units were allowed to remain open for training and proficiency flights. General aviation flights also resumed or picked up in the summer of 2020. As airspace became almost devoid of airline traffic, aerial work operators were able to conduct more flights than usual, taking advantage of being able to work in airspace that would previously have been too busy. Despite recovering sooner than IFR movements, VFR movements generally stabilized at a slightly lower level than pre-pandemic 2019.

VFR movements at airports with control towers (not FSS) were above 2019 levels in some months of 2021. With much less airline traffic, general aviation pilots and flight instructors took advantage of the opportunity to fly to larger airports and practice controlled aerodrome procedures or teach their students to operate at these airports. Therefore, some of the increase in VFR movements at aerodromes with control towers is actually substitution from other aerodromes.

As a result of VFR movements recovering faster than IFR movements, the proportion of VFR itinerant movements at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS increased from a little over a third (37%) of itinerant movements in 2019 to almost half (47%) in 2020. In the eight months from May through December 2020 combined, this proportion was more than half (55%).

VFR flights are much more weather dependent than IFR flights, and there is a clear seasonal pattern, with VFR movements as a proportion of total movements increasing in the summer and decreasing in the winter. Chart 2 shows itinerant VFR movements as a percentage of total itinerant movements for airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS by month. In 2018 and 2019, the VFR proportion never reached 45%. Every month beginning in May 2020, percentages are visibly higher than pre-pandemic 2018 and 2019, reaching 61% in August 2020. In the second half of 2021, VFR proportions decreased from previous months as IFR traffic increased.

Chart 2 Itinerant aircraft movements under visual flight rules as a percentage of total itinerant movements at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and flight service stations, monthly, 2018 to 2021

Data table for Chart 2 
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 2 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
2018 2019 2020 2021
percent
January 22.9 25.8 24.6 45.3
February 27.6 27.8 32.7 49.3
March 31.7 36.6 33.0 58.4
April 34.8 35.7 40.9 58.6
May 42.4 41.7 55.0 61.0
June 40.3 42.3 58.6 58.9
July 43.1 44.2 60.1 55.7
August 38.8 42.2 61.1 49.8
September 38.0 38.8 56.8 46.3
October 34.9 37.6 53.3 41.7
November 29.5 31.8 50.9 39.0
December 26.1 25.1 41.3 29.0

Activity of helicopters and piston airplanes more robust than that of turbine airplanes

Another characteristic that is correlated with the type of flying activity is engine category, which is generally, although not perfectly, correlated with aircraft size. Major airlines operate mostly turbofan aircraft, while regional airlines use turboprops and some smaller turbofans. Commuter carriers fly mostly turboprops, and air taxi operators have pistons and turboprops. Aerial work operators tend to fly pistons and turboprops; flight training is done on piston aircraft, and general aviation is mostly the domain of pistons, but some wealthy individuals own turboprops. Corporate aviation is an outlier, as their fleets consist mostly of business jets that transport small numbers of people at fast speed.

Chart 3 depicts monthly itinerant aircraft movements at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS by type of power plant. The use of all airplanes (i.e. series on the graph other than helicopters) dropped noticeably in April 2020. Then movements by piston aircraft began recovering closer to pre-pandemic levels, while movements by turbine aircraft (turboprops, turbofans and turbojets) remained well below the levels they were at in 2018 and 2019. Movements by turbine-engine airplanes increased over the summer of 2021 and flattened out in autumn, still remaining noticeably below pre-pandemic levels, although higher than at any previous time during the pandemic. This echoes the flight rules data. Flight training, aerial work and general aviation activity was almost back to pre-pandemic levels by late 2020, while air carriers continued to be affected by travel restrictions and a lack of demand. Substitution from smaller aerodromes could also be a factor.

Chart 3 Itinerant aircraft movements by type of power plant, airports with NAV CANADA control towers and flight service stations, monthly, 2018 to 2021

Data table for Chart 3 
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 3 Turbofan and turbojet, Turboprop, Piston and Helicopters, calculated using number of itinerant aircraft movements units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Turbofan and turbojet Turboprop Piston Helicopters
number of itinerant aircraft movements
2018
January 98,098 113,287 41,910 14,830
February 91,049 105,875 50,961 15,701
March 104,877 121,750 72,425 19,747
April 98,798 119,509 78,117 20,406
May 105,828 136,549 116,707 29,995
June 111,583 137,216 108,706 28,979
July 119,372 144,793 126,855 32,020
August 121,578 144,371 103,765 32,845
September 109,302 129,057 98,792 26,132
October 105,555 129,110 88,685 23,314
November 94,218 118,615 64,053 16,888
December 100,226 114,433 55,946 13,410
2019
January 99,334 113,541 50,439 15,352
February 90,225 101,719 49,670 14,582
March 103,015 121,822 93,511 21,484
April 97,874 120,497 83,463 21,624
May 104,682 130,004 112,450 28,575
June 108,733 128,440 116,027 28,639
July 116,977 136,574 134,688 31,111
August 118,706 134,167 126,080 28,420
September 108,746 123,362 101,132 24,561
October 105,042 122,887 99,136 23,618
November 93,786 112,419 71,314 16,904
December 98,513 109,566 50,587 13,519
2020
January 97,461 106,535 45,818 15,197
February 91,142 102,381 68,684 16,944
March 78,429 88,251 59,123 14,434
April 19,912 36,286 21,481 11,673
May 21,750 40,283 46,296 18,318
June 29,170 50,971 76,301 20,844
July 38,304 62,190 103,598 23,963
August 40,063 65,599 112,757 27,145
September 36,955 63,504 93,123 23,120
October 37,702 63,710 84,898 20,100
November 34,225 59,097 72,073 16,025
December 38,041 59,225 49,521 12,847
2021
January 33,575 53,754 53,178 13,671
February 25,334 50,078 51,507 13,421
March 28,255 59,714 88,237 18,862
April 28,549 57,267 85,723 19,454
May 30,309 60,489 97,416 23,970
June 36,491 70,708 96,442 26,673
July 52,258 85,928 102,309 33,686
August 65,937 91,290 97,986 30,794
September 70,020 88,570 94,461 25,914
October 71,106 90,730 81,134 23,910
November 68,242 85,192 69,366 20,692
December 75,532 82,492 43,631 13,426

Helicopters, which include both those with piston and turboshaft engines, are in a league of their own, as their activity was hardly affected. Helicopters are used mostly in aerial work operations that are essential and cannot stop in a pandemic – pipeline patrol, firefighting, transporting workers to oil rigs, and so on. Additionally, some people used helicopter services to fly across the Canada-US border when it was closed to land crossings.

Activity by larger air carriers the slowest to recover

The AMS program also publishes data by type of operation. Chart 4 presents the number of itinerant aircraft movements by type of operation at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS.Note Chart 5 shows percentage changes from the same month of 2019.

Activity in all types of operation declined in April 2020, but the number of movements by private aircraftNote never fell as much as the others. While air carriers had little demand for their services and flight training units were closed by government rules, general aviation pilots who own their own aircraft were simply advised to stay home. In the interests of aviation safety, and in many cases to satisfy the requirements imposed by insurance companies to fly a minimum number of hours in a given time period, some private aircraft owners continued limited flying in the local area throughout the lockdown periods. Additionally, corporate aircraft are often registered as private, and this type of flying has seen an increase during the pandemic, as the wealthy seek to avoid airline travel for fears of catching the virus (Foley, 2021). These factors were mitigated by terminal closures, shortened operating hours for airport services and similar restrictions that made operations more difficult.

Following the decline at the beginning of the pandemic, private aircraft movements reached pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020 and fluctuated around those levels in 2021.

Chart 4 Itinerant aircraft movements by type of operation, airports with NAV CANADA control towers and flight service stations, monthly, 2018 to 2021

Data table for Chart 4 
Data table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 4 Level I-III and foreign air carriers, Level IV-VI air carriers, Other commercial and Private, calculated using number of itinerant aircraft movements units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Level I-III and foreign air carriers Level IV-VI air carriers Other commercial Private
number of itinerant aircraft movements
2018
January 202,070 32,233 13,196 15,238
February 187,283 36,988 16,591 16,913
March 216,075 46,979 24,194 24,811
April 207,408 50,394 24,323 27,144
May 227,216 69,963 36,885 44,003
June 233,185 66,913 32,881 43,576
July 248,323 78,289 38,423 45,195
August 248,166 70,183 31,972 43,553
September 225,048 59,378 29,842 40,201
October 222,484 54,126 28,507 32,927
November 202,319 41,743 21,357 22,553
December 205,929 36,931 16,363 19,760
2019
January 204,135 36,202 15,550 17,509
February 183,071 36,552 16,734 15,037
March 216,470 56,756 30,754 28,814
April 209,122 51,134 28,289 27,412
May 222,415 67,726 37,222 37,729
June 223,862 69,610 37,727 41,222
July 241,218 81,042 40,085 44,383
August 239,320 74,844 39,628 44,767
September 218,961 62,653 30,972 36,242
October 216,448 60,324 33,657 31,897
November 196,205 45,338 24,476 22,429
December 198,903 36,388 15,284 17,332
2020
January 195,069 34,634 15,460 14,891
February 184,817 45,684 22,788 20,526
March 159,275 38,599 17,621 20,410
April 51,127 12,699 3,835 17,599
May 54,555 30,549 11,180 24,316
June 71,080 44,403 25,855 29,573
July 89,760 58,968 36,698 35,766
August 94,670 66,673 39,620 37,863
September 90,211 56,693 31,945 31,523
October 91,872 51,298 28,754 28,436
November 84,848 44,291 24,985 22,248
December 88,959 30,115 17,583 18,344
2021
January 79,771 31,600 19,789 18,615
February 68,122 32,720 18,739 16,000
March 78,537 48,797 33,492 27,657
April 77,478 46,091 32,881 28,675
May 81,397 53,361 36,954 33,059
June 94,081 54,790 38,506 34,176
July 121,205 66,674 38,041 38,694
August 141,393 62,283 34,618 39,195
September 145,411 55,036 33,675 36,786
October 149,354 49,057 30,033 31,972
November 141,118 45,431 26,012 24,782
December 146,495 31,027 16,028 17,148

Chart 5 Percentage change from the same month of 2019 in itinerant aircraft movements by type of operation, airports with NAV CANADA control towers and flight service stations, monthly, 2020 to 2021

Data table for Chart 5 
Data table for Chart 5
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 5 Level I-III and foreign air carriers, Level IV-VI air carriers, Other commercial and Private, calculated using percentage change from same month of 2019 units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Level I-III and foreign air carriers Level IV-VI air carriers Other commercial Private
percentage change from same month of 2019
2020
January -4.4 -4.3 -0.6 -15.0
February 1.0 25.0 36.2 36.5
March -26.4 -32.0 -42.7 -29.2
April -75.6 -75.2 -86.4 -35.8
May -75.5 -54.9 -70.0 -35.6
June -68.2 -36.2 -31.5 -28.3
July -62.8 -27.2 -8.4 -19.4
August -60.4 -10.9 0.0 -15.4
September -58.8 -9.5 3.1 -13.0
October -57.6 -15.0 -14.6 -10.9
November -56.8 -2.3 2.1 -0.8
December -55.3 -17.2 15.0 5.8
2021
January -60.9 -12.7 27.3 6.3
February -62.8 -10.5 12.0 6.4
March -63.7 -14.0 8.9 -4.0
April -63.0 -9.9 16.2 4.6
May -63.4 -21.2 -0.7 -12.4
June -58.0 -21.3 2.1 -17.1
July -49.8 -17.7 -5.1 -12.8
August -40.9 -16.8 -12.6 -12.4
September -33.6 -12.2 8.7 1.5
October -31.0 -18.7 -10.8 0.2
November -28.1 0.2 6.3 10.5
December -26.3 -14.7 4.9 -1.1

After the initial drop, it is the movements by Level I-III and foreign air carriers (which include Canadian airline, commuter and larger air taxi operators, as well as foreign air carriers of any size) that stand out. Before the pandemic, these carriers accounted for by far the largest number of movements at airports with NAV CANADA control towers and FSS. After first dropping in March and April 2020, they remained well below pre-pandemic levels while other types of operation recovered sooner. This echoes the findings in the previous article on airlines; that is, large and medium carriers continued to experience low demand amid new waves of infections, uncertainty and travel restrictions. The improvement observed in the second half of 2021 is also consistent with the passenger data.

In contrast, small air carriers (Level IV-VI) mostly provide air taxi services to smaller communities, and these vital links are essential to those who live in those remote communities, so they are needed even during the pandemic. Their aircraft movements have recovered to near or above 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

Finally, other commercial movements include flight training and aerial work.Note As discussed in relation to flight rules, these activities have recovered or increased their flying to take advantage of less busy airspace. Substitution from flying at small uncontrolled aerodromes to visiting controlled airports could also be a factor. Other commercial movements were above 2019 levels for half a year (from November 2020 through April 2021) but declined to fluctuate around 2019 levels in later months.

Summary and conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest shock to the aviation industry in history,Note and this article examined its impact on various flying activities in Canada as well as the road to recovery up to December 2021. While all flying activities were affected, some recovered faster than others. AMS data show that movements under instrument flight rules, movements by aircraft with turbine engines, and those by large and medium air carriers remained significantly reduced from pre-pandemic levels as of the end of 2021. In comparison, movements under visual flight rules, movements by aircraft with piston engines, and those by small air carriers, other commercial operators and private aircraft have recovered close to, or in some cases above, pre-pandemic levels.

This suggests that general aviation, flight training and aerial work had a faster recovery than air taxi operations which, in turn, had a stronger recovery than airline operations. It was the challenges faced and actions taken by the larger airlines – grounded fleets, laid off employees and huge financial losses – that garnered the most attention. This is understandable as commercial passenger aviation has a larger economic footprint, and collateral damage was felt throughout the tourism sector.

References

Foley, Brian. (2021, September 16). Business jet makers exit decade-long lull to capture renewed market interest. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianfoley1/2021/09/16/business-jet-makers-exit-decade-long-coma-poised-to-capture-long-awaited-market-demand/?sh=6a5a04571445

IATA. (2021a, October). Annual review 2021. https://www.iata.org/contentassets/c81222d96c9a4e0bb4ff6ced0126f0bb/iata-annual-review-2021.pdf

IATA. (2021b, October 4). Airline industry economic performance – October 2021. https://www.iata.org/en/iata-repository/publications/economic-reports/airline-industry-economic-performance---october-2021---presentation/

Mordvinova, V. (2022). Canadian aviation amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Part 1. Impact on Canadian airlines. StatCan COVID-19: Data to Insights for a Better Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 45280001. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2022001/article/00003-eng.htm

Statistics Canada. Surveys and statistical programs – Aircraft Movement Statistics. https://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=2715

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