The airport industry has finally turned the corner on the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the European region of Airports Council International’s (ACI) 2022 traffic report. Passenger traffic across the European airport network nearly doubled (+98%) in 2022 compared to the previous year, reaching 1.94 billion passengers. However, that was still -21% below pre-pandemic (2019) volumes, with just 27% of Europe’s airports having fully recovered their 2019 passenger traffic level.
1. Market rebound
Airports in the EU+ market (EU, EEA, UK and Switzerland) saw their passenger traffic increasing by +122% in 2022 compared to the previous year. Such record year-on-year growth attests to the tremendous value for people of being able to reconnect and travel across Europe and beyond. The rebound was especially impressive for airports in countries were travel restrictions had been most stringent throughout 2021, such as the UK (+249%), Ireland (+235%) and Finland (+187%).
The surge in passenger traffic last year has been phenomenal. Kicking off in early Spring when most travel restrictions were finally lifted, it boomed over the Summer and remained resilient afterwards.Olivier Jankovec, Director General ACI Europe
Meanwhile, the increase in passenger traffic at airports in the rest of Europe (Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan) was relatively moderate at +26%. This was due to the lesser impact of the pandemic on air traffic in 2021 as governments in these countries generally refrained from imposing the kind of travel restrictions affecting the EU+ market. This was also due to the impact of the war in Ukraine, with Ukrainian airports (-88.3%) losing all commercial air traffic as of February 2022 and Russian airports (-10.4%) losing air traffic to/from the EU+ market in particular.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty about 2023, not least because of geopolitical tensions and the fact there is no end in sight for the war in Ukraine. But the traffic outlook is getting better thanks to demand headwinds easing somewhat with the reopening of China, recession fears for Europe subsiding and inflation softening. This should help in reducing the current traffic gaps and getting more airports closer to their pre-pandemic volumes. However, supply pressures are likely to remain significant given the structural capacity reductions made by most airlines during the pandemic, their strong focus on increasing yields through higher air fares rather than market share, aircraft delivery delays and labour shortages still being an issue in some markets”, said ACI Europe’s Director General Olivier Jankovec.
2. Multi-speed recovery across national markets
When compared to pre-pandemic volumes, 2022 saw the gap in passenger traffic between the EU+ market and the rest of Europe closing, with both markets standing at -21%. Still, there were huge variations in the performance of national markets across Europe in terms of their recovery to pre-pandemic levels. These variations reflect a mix of factors, including the continued predominance of leisure demand boosting airports in tourist-oriented countries, targeted Low-Cost Carriers’ (LCCs) expansion, increased airport competition, as well as the impact of past travel restrictions lingering and the war in Ukraine.
In the EU+ bloc, airports in Greece (-1.9%), Portugal (-5.8%) and Luxembourg (-6.9%) came closest to a full recovery in passenger traffic. Amongst larger EU+ markets, airports in Spain (-11.4%) posted the best results, followed by those in Italy (-17.9%) and France (-18.8%), while those in the UK (-24.8%) and especially Germany (-34.9%), where LCCs retrenched, underperformed the EU+ average. The weakest performance came from airports in Slovenia (-43.6%), Finland (-40.6%) and Slovakia (-38.6%).
In the rest of Europe, LCC expansion boosted passenger traffic at airports in Albania (+55.7%), Kosovo (+26.1%) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (+20.4%) well above full recovery levels. Airports in Kazakhstan (+15.6%) and Armenia (+13.2%) benefitted from an influx of traffic from Russia (-24.9%). Meanwhile airports in Serbia (-8.9%) came relatively close to a full recovery, followed by those in Turkey (-12.9%).
3. The Majors
Last year saw EU+ hubs largely restoring their position in the Majors (5 busiest European airports). Overall, passenger traffic at the Majors increased by +114% in 2022 compared to the previous year, but remained -22.6% below pre-pandemic levels. This was largely due to the continuation of travel restrictions by some Asian countries and network airlines still limiting capacity deployment.
Istanbul remained the busiest European airport in 2022, welcoming 64.3 million passengers and almost recovering its pre-pandemic traffic volume (-6.2%). London Heathrow (61.6 million passengers|-23.8% vs. 2019) came in second position. However, the British hub has recovered its position as the busiest European airport as of November 2022.
Paris-CDG (57.5 million passengers |-24.5% vs. 2019) held the third position, followed by Amsterdam-Schiphol (52.5 million passengers |-26.8% vs. 2019). Madrid (50.6 million passengers |-18% vs. 2019) closed the top 5 league, surpassing Frankfurt (48.9 million passengers | -30.7% vs. 2019).
4. Leisure demand and LCCs driving airport performance
Amongst other large airports and secondary hubs, the best 2022 passenger traffic performances came from airports relying predominantly on leisure demand with significant LCC activity and limited or no exposure to Asia. These included: Palma de Mallorca (-3.9%), Paris-Orly (- 8.4%), Lisbon (-9.3%), Athens (-11.2%), Antalya & Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen (-13.2%) and Dublin (-14.7%).
The same dynamics also resulted in smaller and regional airports significantly outperforming the European average and coming closest to a full recovery, with their 2022 passenger traffic at -12% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Amongst Europe’s airports having fully recovered their 2019 volumes, 90% were smaller and regional ones, the best performing being: Trapani and Oradea (+117%), Perugia (+68.5%), Zadar (+36.8%), Zaragoza (+34.4%), Santorini (+25.6%), Funchal (+20.8%), Memmingen (+15.9%), Chania (+11.3%), along with the LCC strongholds of Beauvais (+15.7%) and Charleroi (+0.6%) and Bergamo (-5.1%).