According to the latest air traffic report from ACI Europe, which was released today, the recovery of passenger traffic across the European airport network has gained momentum in January 2023, after facing travel restrictions due to the Omicron variant in the previous year. Compared to the same period last year, passenger traffic has surged by +69%, driven primarily by international passenger traffic, which has grown by +85%, whereas domestic passenger traffic has expanded at a much slower pace, recording a growth rate of +35%.

The report also suggests that despite the impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry, the situation has improved significantly. In comparison to pre-pandemic levels in January 2019, passenger traffic in January 2023 has seen a decline of only -11%, marking a notable improvement over the preceding month’s performance of -14% in December 2022. This indicates that the industry is gradually recovering, and this month’s performance is the closest the industry has come to full recovery since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Passenger demand in the aviation industry has remained resilient despite higher airfares and broader inflationary pressures across the economy, resulting in a positive start to 2023. ACI Europe’s latest report reveals that 42% of Europe’s airports have now recovered their pre-pandemic traffic volumes, and more are expected to reach this milestone in the coming months, although there are significant variations in performance across different markets. The expansion of capacity by ultra-low-cost carriers and the recent lifting of pre-departure testing requirements for travellers from China are expected to further boost the recovery of airports.

As the peak summer season approaches, Europe’s airports have increased their preparedness plans and collaborated with their operational partners, such as airlines, ground handlers, border control forces, and air traffic control, to identify possible risks and stress points. The focus is particularly on staffing levels to ensure that the aviation system can cope with the expected demand. The aviation industry anticipates that capacity limitations will remain the exception rather than the rule.

These figures reveal a positive trend in the aviation industry, and the industry is optimistic about the future. However, the sector still faces challenges in ensuring a safe travel experience for passengers, while adhering to the pandemic-related travel restrictions imposed by various governments across the globe. The travel and aviation industries are continuously reviewing and adapting its procedures to meet evolving regulatory requirements, ensuring that the recovery remains sustainable in the long run.

European Market Leads

According to the latest air traffic report by ACI Europe, European airports saw a remarkable 82% increase in passenger traffic in January 2023, compared to the same month last year. Among the airports that experienced the highest increases were those in the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus. However, when compared to January 2019, passenger traffic levels remained down by 11%.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, 11 national markets achieved or exceeded a full recovery in January, compared to only one the previous month. The airports in Portugal, Cyprus, and Luxembourg showed the best performances, followed by those in Croatia, Malta, and Romania. Meanwhile, airports in Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Germany remained the farthest from achieving a full recovery, largely due to factors such as the war in Ukraine and the loss of Low Cost traffic.

Looking at the largest EU+ markets, airports in Spain posted the best results, followed by those in Italy, France, and the UK, except for Germany, which underperformed. The rest of Europe saw passenger traffic grow by 27% in January compared to the same month last year. The impact of the war in Ukraine continued to weigh heavily on performance, resulting in the loss of all commercial air traffic at Ukrainian airports and passenger volumes decreasing by 9.4% at Russian airports. However, airports in Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey benefited from war-related traffic shifts.

When compared to January 2019, passenger traffic stood at -8%, with airports in Albania, Armenia, Kosovo, and Serbia far exceeding their pre-pandemic volumes. Airports in Turkey came very close to a full recovery, while those in Russia still managed to remain above their pre-pandemic volumes due to passenger traffic shifting to domestic and non-EU+ markets.

Despite the encouraging signs, the aviation industry faces ongoing challenges, including evolving regulatory requirements and the need to maintain a safe travel experience for passengers while adhering to pandemic-related travel restrictions. Therefore, the industry must continue to review and adapt its procedures to ensure that the recovery remains sustainable in the long run.

Recovery Patterns in Airports

In January 2023, the passenger traffic at the top five European airports, also known as the “Majors,” grew by an impressive 73.5% compared to the same month in the previous year. This surge in passenger numbers reflects the gradual recovery of the aviation industry from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the remarkable growth, the numbers remained 10.6% below pre-pandemic levels in January 2019. However, this was an improvement from the preceding month, which saw a decrease of 12.1% from January 2019 levels. The positive impact of the reopening of the Chinese market is yet to materialize, which could further boost passenger traffic in the future.

Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport saw the highest passenger traffic among European airports in January 2023, with 5.64 million passengers. This represents a significant increase of 62.6% compared to the same month last year, allowing the Turkish hub to exceed its pre-pandemic volumes by 8.1%. London-Heathrow Airport followed closely behind, with 5.49 million passengers. Paris-CDG was in the third position, with 4.72 million passengers. The British and French hubs saw a remarkable increase in passenger volumes of 111.2% and 73.2%, respectively, compared to the same month last year. However, both airports remained 7.4% and 12.1% below pre-pandemic levels in January 2019.

Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport came in fourth, with 4.43 million passengers. The performance of the Spanish hub reflected the significant penetration of Low-Cost Carriers and its lower exposure to Asia. Along with Istanbul, it was the only Major exceeding pre-pandemic volumes by 1%. Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport was in the fifth position, with 3.9 million passengers. While it saw an increase of 56.6% compared to the same month last year, it remained 22.2% below January 2019 levels.

The passenger traffic performance of other large airports in January 2023 reflected a recovery still largely driven by intra-European and transatlantic routes, dominated by leisure demand and characterized by significant (but selective) capacity expansion from Ultra-Low Cost Carriers. Accordingly, airports such as Lisbon (+13.3%), Athens (+3.9%), Dublin (+2%), and Istanbul-Sabiha Gokcen (+1.3%) all exceeded their pre-pandemic levels in January 2019. On the other hand, airports like Berlin (-45.9%), Munich (-28%), London-Gatwick (-26.9%), and Frankfurt (-21.3%) remained well below their January 2019 levels.

The same recovery patterns and market dynamics brought regional and smaller airports closer to full passenger traffic recovery. In January 2023, airports with less than 10 million passengers per annum were only 4.9% below January 2019 levels. However, there were significant variations in performance among regional airports, with those serving popular tourist destinations and/or relying on Low-Cost Carriers seeing passenger volumes exceeding pre-pandemic levels. These airports include Varna (+60.1%), Batumi (+56%), Memmingen (+40.5%), Paphos (+39.2%), Funchal (+38.5%), Alghero (+31.5%), Bergamo (+22.3%), Krakow (+19.8%), Catania (+14.6%), Charleroi (+13.6%), and Eindhoven (+12.9%).

Trends in Aircraft Movements

The latest data on aircraft movements across European airports indicates a significant increase of +28% compared to January of the previous year. It is worth noting that this surge in activity is largely driven by airports in the EU+ markets, which recorded an impressive increase of +32% compared to the same month last year. Meanwhile, airports in the rest of Europe saw a decline in aircraft movements, down by -10%.

These trends reflect the ongoing recovery in the aviation industry, which is gradually bouncing back from the impact of the pandemic. The resurgence in aircraft movements is an indication of increased demand for air travel, with airlines expanding their routes and services to cater to growing passenger needs. It is worth noting that this increase in activity has largely been driven by domestic and regional routes, which are dominated by leisure demand.

While the recovery in the aviation sector is encouraging, it is important to note that the industry is still facing several challenges, including ongoing travel restrictions and border closures in some regions, which continue to impact the recovery of the sector. Nevertheless, the positive trends in aircraft movements across the European airport network signal a promising start to the year, with hopes that the industry will continue to recover in the months ahead.

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