Global air traffic demand fell 14 per cent in February, the most since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as airlines were “hit by a sledgehammer called COVID-19,” the International Air Transport Association said.

The decline reflects a record collapse in travel in China that month and a 41 per cent tumble in demand in the Asia-Pacific region, IATA said, warning that the situation has only grown worse.

“This is the biggest crisis that the industry has ever faced,” IATA’s Director General Alexandre de Juniac said in a statement. “The impact on aviation has left airlines with little to do except cut costs and take emergency measures in an attempt to survive in these extraordinary circumstances.”

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“This is aviation’s darkest hour and it is difficult to see a sunrise ahead.” -- IATA’s de Juniac

IATA, which represents some 290 carriers, said last month that airlines worldwide could lose $252 billion in revenue this year and burn through as much as US$61 billion in the second quarter as travel slumps. Confirmed coronavirus cases globally have crossed 1 million with 53,000 deaths.

The full impact of the pandemic won’t be revealed until the March results, as many countries only started restricting travel last month. Airlines in the U.S., for example, had a strong February as domestic traffic jumped 10 per cent, though demand started to fall toward the end, IATA said. Domestic traffic in China slid 84 per cent in February, the worst figure since IATA began tracking the market in 2000, but it is now showing signs of improvement.

IATA has been lobbying for government bailouts as many carriers are fast running out of cash because sales are suspended but their fixed costs remain. “Without additional government action today, the industry will not be in a position to help when skies are brighter tomorrow,” de Juniac said.

Beyond airlines, Boeing Co. expects thousands of workers to retire or accept a buyout offer as the Chicago-based planemaker races to shrink its operations, while Airbus SE is extending credit lines and has canceled its dividend.