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2009 Top 200 airlines passenger traffic

Passenger traffic growth among the world's largest 200 carriers slumped to its lowest level for nearly a decade at -0.4% last year. The RPK traffic figures from the 2009 Airline Business World Airline Rankings, though, indicate the bigger airlines fared better in traffic terms than the industry as a whole, for which IATA has reported passenger traffic down around 3.5%.

The decline of -0.4% for 2009, during a year marked by airline capacity cuts in response to plummeting demand, meant a further stifling in growth for the Top 200 carriers. Traffic had risen only 3% in 2008. This compares with the high growth enjoyed during the middle of the last decade and marks the worst traffic growth year among the leading carriers since the falls of 2001.

Europe was hardest hit as traffic fell 2.2%, while by contrast the continued growth of the mega Gulf carriers drove a 13.6% jump in passenger traffic in the Middle East region, albeit off a much lower base figure. As on the revenue side, the low-cost carriers fared best of the sectors with growth of 4.5% in passenger levels. But this is well short of the double-digit growth of recent years.

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How revenues were hit in 2009 and the challenges ahead for the sector see our special feature here

The figures from the rankings do illustrate the extent to which the largest carriers have kept capacity in check. Capacity was fractionally down in 2009 among the Top 200 carriers, enabling them to lift total load factor by a point and a half to 78.3%.

Delta Air Lines, bolstered by its merger with Northwest Airlines, has now overtaken Air France-KLM at the head of the list of global carriers by passenger traffic. Prior to the merger, Delta had been the world's third largest by RPKs. While low-cost carriers and the Middle East giants continued to see traffic gains, probably the most striking growth among the Top 200 was seen among Chinese carriers. Most of these experienced double-digit passenger traffic increases in 2009 as the domestic market rebounded after a difficult 2008 for Chinese air traffic.

Delta Airlines 
Delta was the largest carrier in the world in 2009 by passenger RPKs following its merger with Northwest Airlines
Traffic last year was helped by a strong recovery in the fourth quarter, particularly in Asia, and this growth has been cemented over the course of the first half of this year - ash cloud disruption excluded. Figures for May reported by IATA show global passenger traffic is running nearly 12% above the corresponding month in 2009 and is starting to overhaul pre-recession levels. And while traffic growth among European carriers lagged other regions, at 8.3%, it does indicate the hit to traffic from the disruption to European airspace caused by the ash cloud is likely only to be blip. "Demand rebounded strongly in May following the impact of the European volcanic ash fiasco in April. Passenger traffic is now 1% above pre-recession levels, while the freight market is 6% bigger," says IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani.

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