Global Air Transport Continues to Expand

New Worldwatch Institute report examines the expansion of global air transportation

Washington, D.C.—In 2012, the number of people traveling on airplanes reached 2,957 million, which was 4.7 percent more than the previous year. Although this figure includes a substantial number of people who travel multiple times during the year, it is equivalent to 42 percent of the world’s population. The number of passengers is up 95-fold from 31 million in 1950, when flying was a luxury few could afford, and it is triple the 960 million passengers in 1986, when air travel was already quite common, writes Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online trend (  

The average length of a flight doubled from 903 kilometers in 1950 to 1,816 kilometers in 2000, but it has not changed much since then and stood at 1,827 kilometers in 2012. Longer flights and expanding passenger numbers generated a strong expansion of total passenger kilometers (pkm) traveled—up 193-fold from the 28 billion pkm in 1950 to 5.4 trillion pkm in 2012. The only pauses in an otherwise inexorable expansion came in 2001–02 (following September 11) and in 2008–09 (after the start of the world financial and economic crisis).

Like passenger air travel, air freight transport has expanded strongly. In 2012, some 49.2 million tons of goods were transported by plane worldwide. Even though this is down 1 percent from 2011, it is 71 percent more than in 2001.

The Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and North America dominate passenger and freight air transport, accounting for 84–86 percent of the world total, depending on the precise activity measured.

International flights account for the bulk of air transport movements. In 2012, some 39 percent of all passengers were on board international flights, but because of the generally greater distances involved in such flights, cross-border flights accounted for 62 percent of all passenger kilometers. In the same year, 66 percent of freight tonnage was transported on international flights, which accounted for an even more imposing 86 percent of total freight ton-kilometers.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the world’s commercial air transport fleet grew from 18,972 planes in 2003 to 25,252 in 2012, an increase of 33 percent. The largest fleet of aircraft by far is in the United States, which has about 6,000 planes in service, followed by China, with slightly less than 2,000. All other countries have fewer than 1,000 planes in service each. The bulk of the fleet is for passenger transport. The global airliner fleet is expected to grow considerably—reaching more than 36,500 planes by 2032 according to Airbus forecasts and more than 41,000 according to Boeing forecasts.

Aviation has a range of environmental and health impacts, including noise, land degradation, disturbance of wildlife and biodiversity, and emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the cumulative climate impact of aviation to date is equivalent to about 40 percent of all surface transport modes, even though motor vehicles are far more numerous than planes. Relative to all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the sector is responsible for about 4 percent of climate change, and its role is rising rapidly.

ICCT finds that design changes doubled the efficiency of commercial aircraft since 1960, but that progress has been slow in the last 20 years. This has to do with low fuel prices for an extended period of time, as well as a tripling in the average age of aircraft since the late 1980s. The higher fuel prices of more recent years provide an incentive to reinvigorate efficiency efforts.

Still, fuel prices alone are an insufficient and unreliable driver. Government policy needs to provide a push for the development and use of more energy-efficient technologies, such as the global CO2 standard for new aircraft under development at the ICAO.

Further highlights from the report:

Measured by revenue, 18 of the world’s 50 largest airlines in 2010 were from the Asia-Pacific region, 12 were from Europe (including Russia), 11 from North America, 4 each from Latin America and the Middle East, and 1 from Africa.

Boeing has delivered close to 11,000 planes in the last quarter-century, while its rival Airbus has sold close to 7,700.

In 2013, there were 41,821 airports in the world. The United States had by far the largest number (13,513), followed at a distance by Brazil (4,093), countries in the European Union (3,102), Mexico (1,714), Canada (1,467), Russia (1,218), and Argentina (1,138).



Notes to Editors:   

For more information and to obtain a complimentary copy of “Air Transport Keeps Expanding,” please contact Supriya Kumar at Click here to preview the trend.

About the Worldwatch Institute:

Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State of the World report is published annually in more than a dozen languages. For more information, visit

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