February 1 2024  |  Industry News

Europe's 2023 passenger traffic nears pre-pandemic levels

By Wendy Morley

Heathrow has taken first place among European airports once again

The annual Q4 and December 2023 airport traffic report from ACI EUROPE indicates a vibrant aviation industry in Europe, influenced by significant structural shifts, robust demand, and intense geopolitical conflicts. The report highlights Heathrow's recovery as the continent's most frequented airport.

In 2023, passenger flow through Europe's airports experienced a 19% hike from the previous year, narrowing down the gap to only 5.4% less than the numbers seen before the pandemic in 2019.

This growth was predominantly fueled by a 21% increase in international passenger numbers, which expanded nearly twice as fast as domestic travel, which saw an 11.7% rise. Airports in the EU+ area outperformed those elsewhere in Europe, showing a 19% increase compared to a 16% increase in other European regions.

Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI EUROPE said: “This robust growth resulted in Europe’s airports welcoming 2.3 billion passengers through their doors last year – an impressive result considering the prevailing inflationary pressures and higher air fares as well as heightened geopolitical tensions. This is testament to the priority people give to travel over other forms of discretionary spending – and it does speak volumes about the value and importance of air connectivity.”

Airport disparity

In 2023, the disparities in air traffic recovery were stark, with some airports greatly exceeding and others lagging behind their 2019 traffic levels:

- Airports in Portugal (+12.2%), Greece (+12.1%), Iceland (+6.9%), Malta (+6.7%), and Poland (+4.5%) surpassed expectations within the EU+ markets. Conversely, airports in Finland (-29.6%), Slovenia (-26.2%), Germany (-22.4%), and Sweden (-21%) were significantly below pre-pandemic traffic levels. Spain's airports (+3%) stood out in the largest EU+ markets as the only ones to have completely bounced back, while Italy (-2%), France (-5.4%), the UK (-6.4%) saw near recoveries, and Germany notably lagged.

- Looking at Europe's broader landscape, airports in Uzbekistan (+110%), Armenia (+66%), and Kazakhstan (+51%) experienced a surge in traffic, partly owing to rerouted flights from/to Russia. Albania (+117%) and Kosovo (+44%) also saw significant growth thanks to Ultra Low-Cost carriers expanding rapidly. Türkiye's airports (+2.5%) marginally surpassed their traffic numbers from before the pandemic.

- On the other end, Israel's airports faced a downturn, with overall passenger traffic down by -12% and a dramatic Q4 decline of -63%. Airports in Ukraine remained closed, with a -100% drop in traffic due to the continuing conflict.

Jankovec stated that 2023 has seen a varied pace of recovery among Europe's airports, with discrepancies in passenger traffic. While some have surpassed their past records, 57% have not reached their pre-pandemic levels. Geopolitical tensions, particularly affecting airports in Ukraine, Israel, Finland, and other Eastern European nations, have played a significant role in this uneven recovery. Additionally, changes brought on by Covid-19 in the aviation sector, such as the rise in leisure and “bleisure” (business and leisure combined) travel, and the strategic shifts among airlines, have had profound effects. Although these changes have favored airports in tourist-dependent regions, they have also intensified competition across all airports.

“Looking ahead at 2024, we are likely to see these performance gaps amongst airports narrowing – but not closing. There is no doubt geopolitical tensions are part of our new reality and so are structural changes in the aviation market.

“The big question marks will be about supply pressures and leisure demand resilience – with the latter unlikely to keep defying macroeconomics but becoming increasingly tied to them. We also need to keep a close eye on operational issues, especially border control with the planned start of the Schengen Entry-Exit System next autumn – for which many outstanding issues still need to be resolved.

“Accordingly, we are for now keeping our guidance for a +7.2% increase in passenger traffic this year compared to 2023, which should lead us just +1.4% above pre-pandemic volumes.”

Major European airports

In 2023, the top five European airports, known as the Majors, saw a 20.8% increase in passenger traffic from the previous year, adding an impressive total of 58 million passengers.

However, these airports were still 6.5% shy of their 2019 passenger numbers due to the Asian market's slow recovery, the gradual return of business travel, and the controlled capacity of their hub carriers.

The ranking and composition of these top five airports saw notable shifts last year:

- London Heathrow regained its status as Europe's busiest airport in 2023, previously held by Istanbul. It welcomed 79.2 million passengers, marking a 28.5% increase from 2022, and was just 2.1% below its 2019 traffic levels. Its strong transatlantic connections were a significant factor in this outcome.

- Istanbul Airport followed closely with 76 million passengers, up 18.3% from 2022. It outperformed its 2019 figures by 11%, making it the top performer among the leading five, significantly jumping from its fifth-place position in 2019.

- Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport remained in third place with a passenger count of 67.4 million, a 17.3% increase from 2022, yet still 11.5% below its 2019 figures. Amsterdam-Schiphol was not far behind, with 61.9 million passengers, up 17.9% from 2022 but down 13.7% compared to 2019.

- Madrid wrapped up the top five with 60.2 million passengers, an 18.9% rise from 2022, and nearly reached its pre-pandemic numbers, falling short by only 2.5%. Its transatlantic routes and a higher proportion of leisure travel helped it overtake Frankfurt, which had 59.4 million passengers, up 21.3% from 2022 but down 15.9% from its 2019 traffic.

In 2023, the traffic flow of passengers at other sizable European airports indicated a shift in market dynamics when measured against the pre-pandemic (2019) benchmarks:

- Airports that predominantly served leisure and visit-friends-and-relatives (VFR) travelers, and those with a significant share of budget airlines, often recorded passenger numbers exceeding their 2019 statistics: Athens saw a 10.1% increase, Lisbon 7.9%, Palma de Mallorca 4.7%, Istanbul-Sabiha Gökçen 4.6%, Dublin 1.8%, and Paris-Orly 1.4%.

- Despite being 7% under its pre-pandemic figures, Rome-Fiumicino experienced a 38% year-on-year surge in passenger volume, which was the highest growth rate among the larger European airports.

- Malaga, with its passenger count exceeding 22.3 million (up 12.6%), managed to surpass the number of passengers at Brussels (down 15.8%) and Stockholm-Arlanda (down 15%).

Smaller airports

In 2023, smaller and regional airports achieved a full recovery, surpassing their larger counterparts. They saw a passenger traffic rise of 17.6% from the previous year, putting them 3% above their 2019 passenger numbers.

This rebound was primarily propelled by EU+ airports that cater to holiday destinations or have increased their flights from extremely budget-friendly airlines, as well as those situated in emerging markets within Europe.

Notably, a selection of these airports witnessed a significant boom, far exceeding their traffic volumes from 2019. The airports with remarkable growth include Trapani, with a 223% increase; Perugia at 143%; Tirana at 117%; Samarkand at 110%; Lodz at 97%; Kutaisi at 91%; Zadar at 88%; Yerevan at 66%; Memmingen at 64%; Almaty at 51%; Funchal at 43%; Zaragoza at 47%; Pristina at 44%; and Oviedo-Asturias at 40%.

Freight and aircraft movements

Freight traffic through Europe's airport network experienced a slight downturn of 2.1% in 2023 relative to the year before, mainly due to the effects of geopolitical issues, trade disputes, and interruptions in the supply chain. This decline was most pronounced in EU+ airports, which saw a 2.9% reduction, whereas airports in other parts of Europe actually reported a 3% growth in freight volumes.

The leading five European airports in terms of freight volume were: Frankfurt with 1.8 million tons, experiencing a 5% decrease from 2022; Istanbul with 1.5 million tons, achieving a 6.3% increase; London-Heathrow with 1.4 million tons, up by 6.4%; Leipzig with 1.4 million tons, facing a 7.7% decrease; and Amsterdam-Schiphol also with 1.4 million tons, down by 4.2%.

In a broader view, freight traffic was still 10% beneath the levels recorded before the pandemic in 2019.

On a different note, aircraft movements across Europe registered an 11.8% rise in 2023 when compared to the prior year, yet they remained 8.1% below the traffic seen in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

Airport groups

In the year 2023, the average variation in passenger traffic compared to pre-pandemic (2019) levels for airports in different groups was as follows: airports with over 25 million passengers annually (Group 1) experienced a -7.6% change; those accommodating 10 to 25 million passengers (Group 2) saw a -10.2% change; airports with 5 to 10 million passengers (Group 3) observed a +4.3% increase; airports serving 1 to 5 million passengers annually (Group 4) had a +2.0% increase; and airports handling 100,000 to 1 million passengers (Group 5) reported a slight decrease of -0.8%. The airports which showed the strongest performance in passenger traffic for the entire year of 2023 compared to the full year of 2019 are listed as follows:

GROUP 1: Istanbul IST (+11.0%), Athens ATH (+10.1%), Lisbon LIS (+7.9%), Palma de Mallorca PMI (+4.7%), Istanbul SAW (+4.6%).

GROUP 2: Porto OPO (+16.0%), Naples NAP (+14.1%), Málaga AGP (+12.6%), Tenerife TFS (+10.5%), Marseille MRS (+6.4%).

GROUP 3: Sochi AER (+105.7%), Almaty ALA (+51.2%), Belgrade BEG (+29.0%), Valencia VLC (+16.6%), Palermo PMO (+15.5%).

GROUP 4: Tirana TIA (+117.4%), Yerevan EVN (+65.6%), Memmingen FMM (+64.2%), Pristina PRN (+44.3%), Funchal FNC (+43.1%).

GROUP 5: Trapani TPS (+223.4%), Perugia PEG (+142.9%), Samarkand SKD (+109.8%), Kutaisi KUT (+91.1%), Zadar ZAD (+88.3%).

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