Positive trends in premium traffic growth reflected in IATA's latest analysis are being tempered by the association's conclusion that the industry has essentially lost six years of premium traffic growth.

In its latest examination of premium passenger statistics, IATA explains that in December of 2009 the number of passengers travelling in premium classes in international markets increased over year-prior levels for the first time since 2008, and grew by 1.7% compared with December 2008.

IATA concluded May 2008 was the low point for premium travel when year-over-year passenger levels fell 25%.

Despite an 11% rise since that time IATA cautions premium travel remained 17% lower than a 2008 high by December of 2009. "Given trend growth of 5% a year," says IATA, "That implies the industry has effectively lost six years of premium traffic growth."

IATA also believes the trend of premium travellers trading down to economy continues. By December it says economy travel had lost just over two years of growth.

Examining premium performance by region IATA's data show within South America posted the largest amount of premium traffic growth in December, with a 21.5% jump, followed by North America to South America with 18.9% growth.

The largest year-over-year decline in premium traffic occurred on routes from Africa to the southwest pacific, which saw a 23.6% drop in December 2009 followed by a 13.3% decline on travel within North America.

Although IATA explains the decline in premium and business travel passengers might be cyclical as evidenced by a 25% fall in 2001 and a 35% decline in 2003, "it is revenue that matters for an airline". The association warns there are "more grounds for thinking that there may have been a structural decline in yields from premium seats".

IATA bases that conclusion on evidence suggesting that more premium travellers are opting for economy class.

The association cites renewed positive growth rates in the number of economy travellers since September of 2009, and by December those numbers were 5% above year-earlier levels.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news