IATA anticipates 8.2 billion air travelers will take to the skies in 2037, a doubling in passengers from 2018 levels. The number of travelers is projected to grow at a 3.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), supported by strong expected growth in the Asia-Pacific region, according to IATA’s 20 Year Air Passenger Forecast, released Oct. 24.

The association cautioned, however, that the predicted growth in air transport and the economic gains it produces, could be jeopardized if governments decide to pursue protectionist trade and economic policies.

“There are two important things that stand out about this year’s forecast,” IATA DG and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said. “Firstly, we are seeing a geographical reshuffling of world air traffic to the East. And secondly, we foresee a significant negative impact on the growth and benefits of aviation if tough and restrictive protectionist measures are implemented.”

More than half the total number of new passengers over the next two decades will come from the Asia-Pacific region, driven by a combination of strong economic growth, expanding middle classes and favorable population and demographic trends. China is expected to displace the US as the world’s largest aviation market by the mid-2020s, and India will rise to third place, surpassing the UK around 2024.

The 3.5% CAGR forecast over the next 20 years assumes that future policies remain unchanged from present conditions. If protectionist forces continue to rise, however, in what IATA calls a “reverse globalization” scenario, the airline industry would still grow, but at a slower pace and with fewer social and economic benefits than a liberalized market would produce.

“This forecast is a cautionary warning to governments,” said de Juniac. “First, the industry will grow but they must clear the infrastructure bottlenecks to bring that growth to their home markets. And secondly, governments must understand that globalization has made our world more socially and economically prosperous. Inhibiting globalization with protectionism will see opportunities lost.”

IATA projects that under conditions of “maximum liberalization,” the CAGR could reach as high as 5.5%, supporting 119 million jobs and $7.6 trillion in GDP, as measured in 2016 prices. That compares with 2.4% CAGR, 90 million jobs and $4.6 trillion in GDP under reverse globalization conditions.

Aviation faces an infrastructure crisis regardless of which growth scenario ultimately plays out, according to IATA.

"The world stands to benefit greatly from better connectivity,” de Juniac said. “However, at this rate, airports and air traffic control will not be able to handle demand. Governments and infrastructure operators must strategically plan for the future. Decisions made now will have an impact on the value created by aviation for their regions.”

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldstein@aviationweek.com