April may have brought the beginnings of a recovery in global airline traffic after its obliteration at the hands of the coronavirus, IATA has suggested.

The airline association has seen a small but significant uptick in flights since the industry’s lowest point on 21 April, indicating that the bottom may have already been reached.

“April was a disaster for aviation as air travel almost entirely stopped,” director general Alexandre de Juniac acknowledges. “But April may also represent the nadir of the crisis. Flight numbers are increasing. Countries are beginning to lift mobility restrictions.”

International revenue passenger-kilometres were down 94% in the month compared with the year before. Repatriation flights formed the bulk of traffic.

Yet from 21 April to 27 May, IATA data shows, worldwide flights rose 30%, albeit from an extremely low base. “It suggests May was a better month than April for passenger flights,” says IATA chief economist Brian Pearce.

The recovery has been led by a resumption in Chinese domestic flights, but also by a pick-up in the domestic markets of South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam.

Although IATA underlines that the latter two countries have only relatively small domestic markets, it takes encouragement from the relatively rapid bounceback.

“In April, we saw the Chinese market begin recovery,” says Pearce. “The South Korean domestic market also began to rise at end March and start April. We’ve subsequently seen, in May, Vietnamese market and New Zealand market recovery as lockdown has ended – and at a faster pace than China.”

Data from late May show that flight levels in South Korea, China and Vietnam “have risen to a point now just 22-28% lower than a year earlier”.

Future bookings are also showing signs of a rebound. Although passengers have delayed their travel plans until the last minute because of the uncertainty, this has now begun to lift. “Throughout May, we have seen a steady rise in bookings… [It is] more evidence that May is a better month [for travel than April],” says Pearce.

Likewise, searches for air travel on Google were up 25% at the end of May compared with the lowest point in April, although they are still down 60% from the start of the year.

IATA is still predicting a relatively slow recovery compared with previous crises, despite the expectation of significant pent-up demand. “These are positive signs as we start to rebuild the industry from a standstill. The initial green shoots will take time – possibly years – to mature,” says de Juniac.

The challenge will be for airlines to manage the ‘restart’ phase, especially given that carriers may be impacted by higher debt, lower fares, and a change in the economics of flying because of social distancing and other safety rules.

There is also the risk of further upswings in coronavirus cases. Against this backdrop, IATA expects a long road to recovery. “We are looking at a third-quarter start for some international markets… What we have seen is a slightly earlier improvement in some domestic markets – New Zealand, Vietnam – but they’re relatively small,” says Pearce. “It’s early days yet.”