Airport Activity: Air Carrier Traffic at Canadian Airports, 2021

Release date: December 8, 2022

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The onset of the pandemic during 2020 brought an abrupt end to ten consecutive annual increases in air passenger volumes. In 2021, COVID-19 continued to dampen Canadian aviation. The total number of passengers enplaned and deplaned at Canadian airports was 46.2 million in 2021, akin to 2020 (-0.4%) but still 71.7% below the 2019 pre-pandemic level.

These totals mask sub-annual differences between the two pandemic-impacted years of 2020 and 2021. As reported earlier based on data from airlines, while the majority (roughly 70%) of passengers in 2020 were flown in the first three months, conversely in 2021, more than four in five passengers were carried in the second half of the year.

In 2021, passenger traffic decreased at three of Canada’s four largest airports. Toronto/Lester B Pearson International, Vancouver International and Montréal/Pierre Elliott Trudeau International each saw decreases in passenger traffic of 4.8%, 2.7% and 3.9% respectively. This largely reflected the lag in international passenger volumes compared to domestic passengers. Calgary International was the exception, with traffic increasing 11.0%.

Restrictions inhibit international recovery

With an uptake in vaccination rates during 2021, some restrictions were relaxed. For example, mandatory testing for fully vaccinated Canadian citizens arriving in Canada ceased in July which helped domestic traffic to start recovering sooner. Indeed, the number of domestic passengers increased 18.3% in 2021 (5.3 million) from the previous year.

However, this uptick in domestic traffic was partly offset by further declines in international travel, as some travel restrictions lingered. Beginning in early 2021, tighter border restrictions were introduced to combat a new variant of the virus. These included a ban on discretionary travel to Canada by non-residents, a negative PCR test prior to boarding, testing upon arrival to Canada and a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Some recovery in international travel resumed mid-year as higher vaccination rates allowed the federal government to ease border restrictions for non-residents while provinces relaxed remaining interprovincial travel restrictions. Nevertheless, transborder traffic (Canada-United States) and international traffic remained farther below 2020, with the former down 31.7% (2.2 million passengers) and overseas traffic down 31.9% (3.3 million passengers).

Table 1
Passenger and cargo data
Table summary
This table displays the results of Passenger and cargo data 2020, 2021 and Change 2020 to 2021, calculated using number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
2020 2021 Change 2020 to 2021
number percent
Enplaned and Deplaned Passengers
Domestic Segments 29,044,556 34,369,227 18.3
Transborder Segments 7,057,778 4,819,268 -31.7
Other International Segments 10,247,201 6,975,445 -31.9
Total 46,349,535 46,163,940 -0.4
Loaded/Unloaded Cargo (tonnes) 1,186,629 1,279,817 7.9

Canada’s busiest airports

In 2021, the four busiest airports accounted for just under two-thirds (65.5%) of all passenger traffic in Canada including over half (54.7%) of all domestic traffic and much larger shares of transborder (95.5%) and other international traffic (98.5%).  For most of the year, commercial flights originating from any international location were directed to land at one of these four Canadian airports.

Passenger traffic at Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto’s Lester B Pearson International, declined 4.8%, going from 13.0 million passengers in 2020 to 12.4 million passengers in 2021. The overall traffic decrease in 2021 is attributed to the international and transborder sectors, which fell 24.2% and 25.3% respectively. Continued intermittent travel restrictions on non-domestic travel throughout 2021 contributed to the decline.

This overall decline at Pearson was somewhat offset by the domestic sector recording an increase of 24.4%. Domestic traffic benefitted from the easing of some government travel restrictions late in 2021.

Vancouver International enplaned and deplaned 7.0 million passengers in 2021, down 2.7% from 2020. This drop was entirely due to international traffic, with overseas traffic falling 39.1% and transborder down 29.2%. As with Toronto Pearson, the decrease at Vancouver was offset by a 22.0% increase in domestic traffic.

In a challenging year for the aviation industry, Calgary International maintained its position as Canada’s third busiest airport. Of the busiest 4 airports in the country, Calgary International was the only airport to post a year-over-year increase in passenger traffic. Overall traffic was up 11.0% in 2021, with 5.9 million passengers enplaning and deplaning at the airport.

This increase was due to a rebound in domestic traffic (up 23.9% in 2021). However, international traffic continued to contract, with the other international sector falling 30.8% and transborder traffic down 27.0%.

Rounding out the top 4, Montréal/Pierre Elliot Trudeau International saw 5.0 million passengers enplaned and deplaned, down from 5.2 million in 2020. With international travel restrictions in place, transborder traffic declined 18.4% and international traffic fell 17.8%. Conversely, domestic traffic increased at a slower rate than at the other top airports (up 19.9% in 2021).

Chart 1

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for chart 1 Passagers (millions) (appearing as column headers).
Passagers (millions)
2001 81,751,079
2002 78,229,504
2003 78,391,224
2004 87,799,030
2005 94,605,005
2006 101,677,328
2007 106,433,442
2008 109,360,095
2009 104,765,830
2010 109,099,196
2011 113,471,763
2012 119,197,489
2013 123,909,945
2014 129,868,870
2015 133,426,703
2016 140,892,544
2017 150,808,451
2018 160,641,587
2019 162,185,308
2020 46,349,535
2021 46,163,940

Cargo the silver lining

The year 2021 continued a shift in aviation activity from moving passengers to moving cargo. With passenger traffic still scarce, this shift helped to keep aircraft in use. Early in the pandemic, some airlines began to operate cargo-only flights and made aircraft modifications to do so. The increase in cargo-only flights helped to boost cargo traffic in 2021 with the tonnes loaded and unloaded at Canadian airports up 7.9% after a decline of 13.8% in 2020.

The amount of domestic cargo transported by air increased 7.1% from 2020 to 655 000 tonnes in 2021. Transborder cargo grew modestly by 3.7% (254 000 tonnes) while other international cargo grew by 12.3% (371 000 tonnes).

During the second year of the pandemic, cargo operators continued to benefit from transporting essential goods and from online shopping. By the end of 2021, quarterly goods revenue earned by the airline industry had doubled from 2019 pre-pandemic levels.

Looking ahead

While 2021 brought the Canadian aviation industry hope of recovery with an increase in domestic traffic and cargo volumes, all measures of passenger and cargo activity continued to be far below their pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

With vaccine rollouts, re-opening of provincial economies and the subsequent easing of travel restrictions throughout 2021, airport activity crept closer to pre-pandemic levels each month. After a pause in January 2022 due to Omicron, demand for air travel – domestic and international – has steadily increased each month of 2022.

The increase during 2022 culminated with a surge in travel demand into the busy summer travel season. The higher volume of passengers coupled with ongoing industry labour shortages resulted in long delays and cancellations at some airports, and several carriers trimmed flight schedules to improve operations.

Note to Users

Cargo data

It is important to note that the air cargo data presented does not represent the total cargo loaded and unloaded in Canada. Comprehensive cargo data are not collected for the following reasons:

  1. the regional and local scheduled carriers do not file cargo data on the airport activity survey and,
  2. the major charter survey does not collect data on domestic courier cargo or domestic entity cargo flights.

Passenger flights which carry cargo on them are classified as passenger flights. The cargo carried on these passenger flights is defined as belly-hold cargo. The belly-hold cargo data are included with the pure cargo data in the cargo table, Table 23-10-0254-01.

Services offered by carriers

Scheduled Services

Major Charter Services

Factors which may have influenced the data

For additional contextual information on events affecting air travel, including summaries of selected Canadian economic events, as well as international and financial market developments by calendar month, check out the Canadian Economic News.

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