Passenger traffic kept recovering in the first quarter of 2023 across the European airport network, as volumes increased by 49% compared to the same period last year, according to European airport trade body ACI EUROPE’s air traffic report. The growth somewhat slowed down in March, at +34%, reflecting the fact that travel restrictions were being lifted at that time last year and passenger traffic had started recovering as a result.
Passenger traffic in the first quarter was just 10.6% below pre-pandemic (Q1 2019) levels. International passenger traffic keeps driving the recovery and getting closer to pre-pandemic levels (-9%), while domestic passenger traffic is lagging behind (-18.5%). This is pointing to structural market changes resulting from factors including changing consumer behaviours and modal shifts.
By the end of March, 45% of Europe’s airports had recovered or exceeded their pre-pandemic volumes, up from 40% in February.
EU+ airports (EU, EEA, Switzerland and UK) saw passenger volumes increasing by 53.4% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year. When compared to pre-pandemic (Q1 2019) levels, EU+ passenger traffic stood at -11.5%, but with significant divergences in performance. This reflects a recovery still predominantly driven by leisure and blended demand as well as selective capacity expansion from Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers, along with the impact of the war in Ukraine.
Airports in Portugal (+15.2%), Croatia (+12.1%), Luxembourg (+9.1%) and Cyprus (+8.4%) well exceeded their pre-pandemic volumes, while airports in Slovakia (-44.9%), Slovenia (-41.2%), Germany (-32.2%), the Czech Republic (-29.7%) and Finland (-26.2%) remained the farthest from a full recovery.
Amongst the largest EU+ markets, and aside from the underperformance of German airports (also resulting from industrial action), airports in Spain (+1.7%) posted the best results, followed by those in Italy (-6.8%), France (-11.4%) and the UK (-12.9%).
At airports in the rest of Europe (Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Türkiye, Ukraine and Uzbekistan), passenger traffic grew by +30.2% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year. When compared to pre-pandemic (Q1 2019) levels, passenger traffic in the rest of Europe outperformed the EU+ market at just -6%.
While airports in Ukraine (-100%) have lost all of their passenger traffic for more than a year, those in Russia (+4.5%) managed to remain above their pre-pandemic volumes in the first quarter as passenger demand has shifted to domestic and non-EU+ markets. This boosted the performance of airports in Uzbekistan (+112.5%), Kazakhstan (+55.1), Armenia (+37.6%) and Serbia (+26.3%).
Meanwhile airports in the major market of Türkiye (-4.9%) came close to a full recovery and those in Albania (+91%) achieved impressive growth thanks to the capacity deployed by Ultra-Low-Cost Carriers.
Passenger traffic at the Majors (top 5 European airports in 2019 – London-Heathrow, Istanbul, Paris-CDG, Amsterdam-Schiphol and Frankfurt) grew by +52.4% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year. Volumes remained -11.2% below pre-pandemic (Q1 2019) levels due to lower hub carrier capacity deployment and the impact of the re-opening of China still limited.
Amongst the current top 5 European airports (London-Heathrow, Istanbul, Paris-CDG, Madrid and Amsterdam-Schiphol) Istanbul (+5.9%) and Madrid (0%) were the only ones having recovered their pre-pandemic (Q1 2019) levels. London-Heathrow (-5.7%) re-established itself as the busiest European airport, followed by Istanbul, Paris-CDG (-13.2%), Madrid and Amsterdam-Schiphol (-20.8%).
The German hubs, Frankfurt (-23.3%) and Munich (-30.1%), significantly under-performed their peers, with lower Low-Cost Carrier penetration and strikes being contributing factors.
Meanwhile, the resilience of leisure demand to inflationary pressures and higher air fares and the reliance on Low-Cost Airline traffic resulted in a number of other large and capital airports exceeding their pre-pandemic volumes in the first quarter: Lisbon (+13.9%), Tel Aviv (+14%), Palma de Mallorca (+2.4%), Athens (+2.3%) and Dublin (+1.9%).
These same recovery patterns and market dynamics were to the continued benefit of a number of large Ultra-Low-Cost airport bases: Beauvais (+34.3%), Bergamo (+19.7%) and Charleroi (+16%). They also benefitted regional and smaller airports where passenger traffic in the first quarter was just –4.5% below their pre-pandemic (Q1 2019) volumes. Those serving popular tourist destination and/or relying on Low-Cost Carriers posted impressive performances, including Kutaisi (+61.4%), Varna (+59.1%), Madeira (+43.5%), Asturias (+36.4%), Memmingen (+40.3%), Trapani (+31.9%) Rotterdam (+26.8%), Lodz (+36.7%), Paphos (+29.1%) and Chania (+20.6%)