The Minister of State and I thank the House for allowing us this opportunity to address the matter of international travel and aviation. The impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, coupled with the emergence and spread of variants of concern, has resulted in one of the most sustained and deepest periods of suppression of international travel. Globally, aviation is experiencing its most challenging crisis in its history. In Europe there were 5 million flights in 2020 as against 11 million in the previous year. Scheduled carrier flights were down by almost 60% and at the end of the year half of the European aircraft fleet - more than 4,000 aircraft - was grounded. The impact on passenger traffic was greater than on the number of flights as, generally speaking, flights operated at lower load factors.
Restrictions on international travel this year have further suppressed passenger numbers, which are down as low as 3% of normal volumes in our State airports. It has led to the collapse in forward bookings. Throughout the aviation sector, passenger air travel revenues have fallen away to a fraction of 2019 levels. As a result, practically all aviation companies are facing unprecedented challenges. This has led to companies taking action to right size and rationalise their cost base, including redundancies and staff reduction measures, as well as taking steps to safeguard liquidity through borrowing and new shareholder capital.
Moreover, the general reduction in passenger numbers has severely impacted air connectivity, something which is vital for an island economy such as ours. This negative impact on aviation has significantly increased the cost of airfreight for the export sector, increasing the cost of doing business. There is a strong likelihood that without signalling the possibility of an easing of restrictions on travel, major employers will be forced to take further action to cut costs which could be avoided.
The greater risk by far is that the restoration of connectivity will be constrained further, with consequences for tourism, business generally and foreign direct investment. Analysis undertaken last week by Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, suggested that air traffic throughout Europe is not expected to return to 2019 levels before 2025. I can give assurances that through the review of the mandatory quarantine and the development of the digital green certificate, many of these matters are to be addressed by the Government when it meets this Friday. I am confident Ireland will, in due course, be in a position to join in the European approach for a digital green certificate system for international travel with Europe and with certain third countries where the risk is low.
The European approach on the digital green vaccine certificates would see the easing of restrictions on non-essential travel while addressing variants through a new EU-wide emergency brake mechanism. It remains open to EU member states to recognise vaccination certificates from other countries for the purpose of waiving public health requirements in a similar way. The EU regulation for digital green certificates will be formally adopted on 1 June and will enter into force on 1 July. Member states will then have six weeks to achieve compliance by mid-August at the latest. The digital green certificate will be available free of charge in digital or paper format. It will include a QR code to enable security and authenticity of the certificate. The Commission will build a gateway to ensure all certificates can be verified throughout the EU and to support member states in the technical implementation of certificates.
Our system is substantially developed to enable the facilitation of vaccination proof for an individual on request and is compliant with the appropriate EU standards. Already the principle is established in the mandatory quarantine exemption regulations that vaccinated people should not be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine. As the vaccination programme is rolled out and large portions of the population are fully vaccinated, I would like to see this principle applied more broadly in the context of the opening of international travel, whereby fully vaccinated people who do not present an intolerable public health risk for the spread of Covid-19 would not be subject to pre-arrival testing or quarantine requirements.
Given that the digital green certificate might not be in widespread use until at least mid-August, the timeframe permitted by the European regulations, it would not seem reasonable to expect fully vaccinated people to wait for the certificate before allowing freedom from current pre-arrival PCR and quarantine requirements. There is a need for pragmatism to allow for an early discontinuation of these public health requirements for fully vaccinated people to travel within the EU and between certain non-EU or non-EEA countries. However, the epidemiological conditions, including status of variants of concern, must also be favourable for international travel to return, and for the current advice against non-essential travel to be lifted within Europe and with third countries.
Each week we have seen countries being removed from the list of specified countries for variants of concern under the mandatory hotel quarantine regime. This is a positive sign. International connectivity will be critical to economic recovery by providing a key enabler of trade and business, including foreign direct investment and tourism. Getting international travel back up and running is vital for the continued economic well-being of this country and remains a priority for the Government; however, this can only be accomplished through consideration of the progression of our Covid-19 national vaccination programme, developments at EU and international level, and public health advice.
In my capacity and responsibility for communications, I would like to briefly comment on the recent cyberattack on our health service. This is a particularly heinous crime at a time of great stress on our State health system. I commend the dedication of the public health service and its personnel and all the health providers, hospitals, nurses, doctors and the other healthcare professionals who are endeavouring to provide to the public through this challenging period. Similarly, I also commend the dedication of the officials of the Department of Health, which was also subject of a later cyberattack. Within the cross-departmental structures, the officials in our Department have worked tremendously closely on all matters relating to international travel and Covid-19 response over the past year, despite, as is the nature of public policy, often have competing priorities. Officials in my Department will continue to work collaboratively with their counterparts in the Department of Health as it leads on implementation of the digital green certificate and the managed relaxing of restrictions necessary for international travel to resume.
The Government will publish a national economic recovery plan shortly in which it will set out the priorities and objectives for Ireland's economic recovery, reflecting the enormity of the challenges faced by businesses and individuals and setting out the plan ahead for a resilient and sustainable economy. As the State and industry prepare for recovery of the sector from the Covid-19 crisis, the emphasis must be on building back better. For international travel and aviation this will mean greener more sustainable airports, more efficient aircraft and sustainable fuel alternatives, and the efficient management of air traffic. This is both a time for national recovery planning for the broader economy and seizing this moment of opportunity for long-term horizon planning and building back better, as I said, when aviation and international travel resumes.
The entire aviation sector - airports, airlines, catering firms, travel agents and tour operators, pilots, cabin crew, engineers and airport staff - has been affected by the impact of the pandemic. Many of the jobs across the aviation sector are well-paid, highly-skilled and of high value to the economy. The aviation sector directly supports almost 40,000 jobs. Firms range from large- and medium-scale employers, such as the international airlines, the airports, aircraft leasing companies and maintenance, repair and overhaul, MRO, facilities, down to SMEs nationwide, including 200 travel agencies in rural and regional towns as well as in the larger cities. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, will address the steps we are taking to support the industry towards recovery and the engagement we have had over recent months and weeks in that regard.
What we have done in these recent months has been steady, slow progress on a step-by-step basis to return our country to a more normal existence, bringing us out of this pandemic. That is the right approach. This summer we will see further measures, including the return of international travel. It is most important that we make that safe and that it will not be not a stop-start exercise. The aviation industry has done good work already in making its part of this safe. We have to do the same at home to make sure the vaccination programme is rolled out and keep the numbers low. That will be the best guarantee for returning to international travel so that we can meet our family and friends and travel for work or for holidays as part of a normal existence. We look forward to that day coming soon.