The recovery in air travel demand continues to be strong and resilient in 2023, notwithstanding the resurgent economic headwinds, manifold current challenges such as high inflation rates or tight labor markets, and, along with this, high levels of uncertainty when looking ahead.

The rebound of global air passenger traffic is underpinned by the latest published recovery rates, measured in revenue passenger-kilometers (RPKs), which rebounded “to 85.9% of pre-pandemic levels [in the first quarter of 2023 vs Q1 2019], signaling a significant improvement from the previous year”.

While this is certainly encouraging news, we wanted to identify if there were still any “sleeping giants”: aviation markets that have not been considered yet by airlines to be put back into operation even though they have already been proven to generate PAX demand pre-COVID in 2019.

Using origin-destination demand data from our BEONTRA Route Forecasting solution, we created the following table summarizing the top 10 untapped aviation markets ranked by their PAX volume in the latest 12 months (April 2022 to March 2023). For this list of sleeping giants we only considered markets which are currently unserved but had at least one direct service in 2019.

In the following, we will take a closer look at three of the 10 outlined markets to better understand their respective market conditions, competitive situation and whether there are specific reasons for this delayed recovery; also, what the latest market trends are, e.g., in terms of any upcoming, already announced relaunches later in the year.

Sacramento (SMF) – Orlando (MCO)

The route Sacramento (SMF) – Orlando (MCO) leads the ranking with 115,000 passengers (bi-directional) in the latest 12 months and a current recovery rate of 72% compared to 2019.

This route was exclusively operated by Southwest Airlines with one daily non-stop service back in 2019. Currently, there is no carrier in sight planning to resume this service. Passengers currently travelling between these airports require at least one stop, for example in Denver (DEN) or Austin (AUS) when flying with Southwest or in Salt Lake City (SLF) when using Delta Air Lines.

When taking a closer look at the catchment area of Sacramento we see that United Airlines is offering double-daily and Alaska Airlines daily non-stop services to Orlando from San Francisco (SFO), which is 137 km away from Sacramento. The capacity on the SFO-MCO route is close to what the two airlines have offered pre-COVID in 2019.

Lahore (LHE) – Manchester (MAN)

The route Lahore (LHE) – Manchester (MAN) comes second with 104,000 passengers (bi-directional) in the latest 12 months, reflecting a sharp rebound with a current recovery rate of 104%, already exceeding pre-COVID levels. Due to the lack of a direct service, passengers currently need to travel with a stopover. Most travelers fly via the Middle East by the known ME3 carriers – Qatar Airways (via DOH), Emirates (via DXB), Etihad (via AUH) – as well as Saudia (via JED) and Turkish Airlines (via IST).

In 2019, this route was exclusively operated by Pakistan International Airlines twice per week, but the service has not been resumed so far.

Sao Paolo (GRU) – Los Angeles (LAX)

Unlike the outlined routes above, the route Sao Paolo (GRU) – Los Angeles (LAX), which has had 96,000 passengers lately, will be resumed by LATAM Airlines in August 2023 with three weekly frequencies initially. It will also be one of the first routes of their Joint Venture with Delta.

This route was operated non-stop by American Airlines pre-COVID with almost the same monthly capacity of ~10,000 seats that will be offered by LATAM from August onwards, operating a Boeing 777-300.

The number of airlines offering connecting services between Sao Paolo – Los Angeles via another hub has steadily increased after the pandemic. LATAM’s new direct services will have to compete with several indirect flight options, for example, offered by United Airlines via Houston (IAH) or Chicago (ORD) and American Airlines via Miami (MIA) or Dallas (DFW).

It will be interesting to follow the ongoing recovery in air travel demand and observe which of the ‘sleeping giants’ we outlined in the above will be revived in the coming months apart from the Sao Paolo (GRU) – Los Angeles (LAX) route.

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