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European Passenger Numbers Rise Despite Fares and Tensions

ACI EUROPE has recently published its air traffic report for October 2023. According to the report, passenger numbers in European airports experienced remarkable growth, defying high airfares and geopolitical tensions. In October, there was an impressive increase of +11.7% compared to the previous year. As a result, passenger volumes were only 1.7% lower than the levels observed before the pandemic in October 2019. This positive trend indicates a promising recovery in the European aviation industry.

London, UK - August 12, 2018 - The departure board displays the time, destination cities, and gate information at London Heathrow Airport.
London Heathrow Airport

Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI EUROPE, said: “The momentum towards a full passenger traffic recovery for Europe’s airports kept going strong in October – defying both airfares up by +36.3%1 and the conflict in Israel adding further geopolitical tensions. Leisure, VFR, and, to a lesser extent, blended travel were key demand drivers, extending dynamics normally associated with the peak Summer months into the autumn. At the same time and while still below where it used to be, business travel also contributed to getting Europe’s airports almost back to their pre-pandemic volumes.”

“However, this ongoing traffic momentum did not benefit all airports equally. There is no doubt that Europe has become a fragmented and multi-speed airport market when looking at passenger traffic performance. This reflects structural changes which only reinforce competitive pressures upon airports.”

EU+ Market and International Traffic Stand Out

Airports in the EU+ market experienced a remarkable growth of +12.6% in passenger traffic, surpassing the performance of airports in the rest of Europe, which saw a growth rate of +7% (compared to October 2022). This growth disparity can be attributed to the conflict in Israel, which caused a significant 40.8% decline in passenger volumes for the month.

When comparing the current passenger traffic with pre-pandemic levels (October 2019), EU+ airports have made impressive progress, with passenger traffic reaching 1.3% below the baseline. International passenger traffic in the EU+ market has almost fully recovered, with a minimal decline of -0.1%, while domestic traffic faced a greater decline of -7.1%.

On the other hand, airports in the rest of Europe lag, with passenger traffic still -3.8% below pre-pandemic levels. This reverses the previous gains made in Q3, where airports in the rest of Europe had achieved a full recovery.

Performance Gaps in National Markets

In the past month, performance variations across different national markets were notable. These differences were influenced by geopolitical tensions and demand patterns, with a focus on leisure and visiting friends and relatives (VFR) travel. The expansion of selective Ultra-Low Cost Carriers also played a role in shaping the market dynamics.

Among the standout performers were airports in emerging aviation markets. These airports experienced a boost in traffic due to shifts caused by the conflict in Ukraine. Countries like Uzbekistan (with a remarkable increase of 139%), Armenia (66% growth), and Kazakhstan (51% rise) showcased impressive results. Similarly, countries like Albania experienced significant growth (134%) due to Ultra-Low Cost Carrier stimulation.

In the EU+ countries market, destinations that heavily relied on incoming tourism and VFR traffic achieved noteworthy results. Iceland experienced a 25% increase, Greece saw a 21% rise, Slovenia saw a 20% growth, and Portugal recorded a 16% increase.

Among the largest European markets, Italy and Spain, which heavily depend on tourism, had the highest growth rates of 8%. However, the United Kingdom experienced a slight decline (-2%), while France (-3%) and Germany (-16%) faced significant drops in air traffic.

On the other end, some countries struggled to recover fully. Apart from Ukraine, which lost all commercial air traffic since February 2022, airports in Israel (-49%), Finland (-32%), Sweden (-22%), Slovakia (-20%), and the Czech Republic (-18%) experienced the greatest challenges in returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Passenger Numbers Rise at Top 5 European Airports

Passenger traffic at the top 5 European airports, known as “the Majors,” experienced a significant growth of 14.6% in October compared to last year. However, it is important to note that despite this growth, passenger numbers are still 5% below the levels seen before the pandemic in October 2019.

The busiest European airport continues to be London Heathrow, which saw a notable increase of 18.1% compared to October 2022 and only a slight decrease of 0.5% compared to October 2019. Following closely behind is Istanbul, with a growth of 11.2% compared to October 2022 and an impressive 6.9% increase compared to October 2019. Paris-CDG also experienced growth at a rate of 10.5% compared to October 2022 but still faces a decline of 10% compared to October 2019. Amsterdam-Schiphol saw a significant boost of 18.5% compared to October 2022 but is still struggling to reach the passenger levels of October 2019, with a decline of 9.5%. Lastly, Frankfurt saw a growth of 14.9% compared to October 2022 but still faces a drop of 11.9% compared to October 2019.

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