The Asia-Pacific region has overtaken North America as the world's largest air travel market with 647 million passengers in 2009, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Monday.

By contrast, 638 million people flew on commercial flights in North America last year, IATA announced at an aviation business conference on the eve of the Singapore Airshow featuring the world's leading aviation industry players.

Within Asia, China has eclipsed Japan over the past decade as the region's largest domestic market, with 1,400 aircraft compared with Japan's 540 and 5.7 million weekly seats against 2.6 million in Japan.

The Singapore Airshow is taking place after a harrowing year in the global aviation industry, which lost an estimated 11 billion dollars in 2009 as a result of the financial meltdown that began in the United States.

IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani told the conference that the Asia-Pacific market would continue to grow rapidly with an estimated 217 million additional air passengers a year in the region by 2013.

"While we see dynamism and diversity within the region, the aspect of Asia-Pacific that excites me most is its potential," said Bisignani.

"More than a quarter of the 2.2 billion people who flew last year, or 647 million people, flew within Asia-Pacific markets.

"It has eclipsed travel within North America as the traditional leader in traffic numbers."

IATA represents some 230 carriers that account for more than 90 percent of scheduled air traffic, but does not include many of the budget airlines credited with a boom in short and medium-haul travel in recent years.

Its members in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and North America recorded year-on-year declines in passenger demand of 5.0 to 5.6 percent in 2009, according to an IATA report released Friday.

But Asian airlines staged a strong recovery in December, when demand grew 8.0 percent from a year ago, nearly twice the global average, the IATA report said.

Bisignani told the conference that Asian airlines were projected to narrow their losses collectively to 700 million US dollars this year from 3.4 billion dollars in 2009, about a third of the industry's global losses last year.

"It is tough in all regions but Asia-Pacific's prospects are improving faster than other regions," he said.

Despite the upbeat outlook for Asia, Bisignani warned the region to press on with liberalisation or miss its growth potential.

He cited efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc to liberalise the air sector by 2015 as an example.

"Industry is preparing and it is important that the target date is met... Asian aviation will not reach its potential if the airlines are constrained to old ways of doing business," he said.

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