Overview of Aviation Sector

Analysis scope and assumptions

Historical air traffic data in this section comes from Eurostat and EUROCONTROL, whose 20-year STATFOR traffic forecast provided the future traffic scenarios representing ‘high’, ‘base’ (most likely) and ‘low’ growth rates. The coverage is all flights from or to airports in the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA). For more details on models, analysis methods, forecasts, supporting data sources and assumptions used in this section, please refer to Appendix C.

Air traffic

Recent strong growth, but flight counts still just below previous peak

In 2017, the number of flights in Europe was 1% below the all-time high reached in 2008. With the economic crisis, 2009 saw the biggest annual fall in flights of recent decades. The recovery in 2011 was temporary, but since 2014 a sustained return to growth is observed. In recent years, growth in low-cost flights has continued, while since 2015 the number of traditional scheduled flights has also increased (Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2).

Passenger numbers have grown even faster, and are 50% higher in 2017 than 2005. This is partially due to a gradual shift towards flying further in larger aircraft with the average distance flown up 16% since 2005. Other contributions come from an increase in load factors (the fraction of seats that are occupied) from 70.2% to 80.3%, and the use of lighter and slimmer seats so that more passengers can be accommodated on the same aircraft. All of the above have resulted in a reduction in fuel burn per passenger kilometre flown (see emissions section).

The total cargo tonnage on all-cargo flights and in the belly hold of passenger flights went up by 55% from 2005 to 2017. However, the number of all-cargo flights decreased by 2% over the same period, indicating a shift towards belly cargo. In addition, smaller all-cargo aircraft with a take-off weight less than 50 tonnes had one of the sharpest reductions in number of flights over that period, indicating a shift to larger all-cargo aircraft.

Under the most-likely future scenario, hereafter referred to as the ‘base’ forecast, the total number of fl hts using EU28+EFTA airports is expected to reach 13.6 million in 2040, compared to 9.6 million in 2017 (Figure 1.3). This represents an average annual growth rate of 1.5% over this period. Although the forecast has been updated since the previous report, actual traffic growth has followed the base forecast, which explains why the 2035 figure remains unchanged.

Low-cost airlines now provide the majority of the scheduled network

From 2005 to 2017, the number of scheduled flights increased by 14%, whereas the number of city pairs with scheduled flights most weeks of the year increased by 43% from 6,000 to 8,600 (Figure 1.4). This is due to airline operators reducing the number of city pairs with high-frequency connecting flights, with the median number of flights each way decreasing from 4.2 per week to 3.2 per week. The traditional scheduled carriers have also reduced the number of city pairs that they serve infrequently (less than 3 times per week), although this was compensated elsewhere by low-cost carriers adding new connections on other city pairs. Indeed, the low-cost carriers now serve more city-pairs than the traditional scheduled airlines.

More city pairs in the network means a greater dispersion of local impacts such as noise. The reduction in high-frequency connections is linked to the increase in aircraft size, and the fact that traditional carriers have reduced their short-haul, intra EU28-EFTA connections rather than their long-haul. This will also have been influenced by competition from road and the high-speed rail network that continues to expand within Europe.

European fleet is young, but ageing slowly

Every year, new state-of-the-art aircraft join the European fleet to accommodate growth and replace old aircraft that are approaching the end of their operational life. Figure 1.5 shows the evolution of the average aircraft age per flight in Europe over time. Following the economic downturn in 2008, retirement of aircraft jumped to over 6% of the fleet in 2008 and 2009 from less than 3% between 2004 and 2007, and low cost carriers had a rapid expansion. This resulted in a reduction in the average aircraft age per flight.

The average aircraft age remained stable for a period, but has increased from 10.3 years in 2014 to 10.8 years in 2017. This increase in average age has been limited, despite a return to growth, by low-cost and traditional scheduled carriers investing in new aircraft such as the A320neo and B737 MAX families. The non-scheduled charter fleet has aged most rapidly, reflecting the decline of this segment and the switch to scheduled operations. The rapid expansion of business aviation up to 2008 was accompanied by the entry into service of new aircraft, but business aviation declined sharply with the economic downturn, which led to more frequent use of the existing aircraft and a gradual ageing in the fleet. The average age of aircraft used for all-cargo operations (i.e. not counting the passenger flights that often carry cargo too) is the highest of all, now reaching 21 years in 2017. It should be noted that new aircraft represent significant costs for operators, and a sufficient operational lifetime is required to ensure a return on their investment.

The daily distribution of flights remains stable

The annual share of flights in the day, evening and night time periods at EU28+EFTA airports has not changed significantly between 2005 and 2017, with 72% of departures and landings occurring between 07:00 and 19:00 local time, 19% between 19:00 and 23:00 and 9% between 23:00 and 07:00. Consequently, the total number of night time departures and landings follows the same trend as the total traffic, and has been increasing since 2013. The situation varies between airports, with some increasing their number of night flights and some decreasing.


Noise exposure is typically assessed by determining a noise contour. This represents an area around an airport inside which noise levels exceed a given decibel (dB) threshold, as shown in Figure 1.6. This section provides trends in the total noise contour areas, and number of people inside the noise contours of 47 major European airports. These are based on the indicators of Lden 55 dB and Lnight 50 dB, as defined in the EU Environmental Noise Directive [6], and were derived using the STAPES airport noise model.

Complementary noise metrics assessed for this report include: the population exposed to aircraft noise events exceeding 70 dB during day and night; the noise-induced annoyance and sleep disturbance based on the latest exposure-response guidance; and the noise energy index computed annually for all flight operations at EU28+EFTA airports.

What are Lden and Lnight?
Lden is the sound pressure level averaged over the year for the day, evening and night time periods, with a +5 dB penalty for the evening and +10 dB for the night. Lnight is the sound pressure level averaged over the year for the night time period only.
Due to the nature of decibels, if the traffic doubles at an airport but the noise of each aircraft movement is reduced by 3 dB, then Lden and Lnight levels will be unchanged. Likewise, the new Airbus ‘A320neo’ aircraft are about 6 dB quieter than the older ‘A320ceo’ during take-off, and consequently four take-offs by an A320neo create similar Lden or Lnight levels as one take-off by an A320ceo.


New, quieter aircraft could help stabilise noise levels around major airports, but noise nuisance may spread to other airports

Average noise levels around airports are still close to what they were in 2005, but are on an upwards trend again since 2013. The total population residing inside the Lden 55 dB and Lnight 50 dB contours of the 47 major European airports were 2.58 and 0.98 million people respectively in 2017 (Figure 1.7, Table 1.2). This is 12% and 13% more than in 2005 for Lden and Lnight respectively, but 14% and 20% more than in 2014. However, some airports within the 47 have seen their Lden and Lnight contours reduced. The total noise energy in the EU28 and EFTA region follows flight counts closely (Figure 1.11) but was 5% lower in 2017 than in 2005, indicating that noise technology has managed to compensate for the increase in average aircraft size. The average noise energy per flight indeed went down by 14% over this period.

The latest World Health Organization Europe guidance [16] recommends to assess aircraft noise annoyance above Lden 45 dB and sleep disturbance above Lnight 40 dB. Using this guidance, it is estimated that around 3.2 million people were highly annoyed by aircraft noise, and 1.4 million suffered from high sleep disturbance in 2017 around the 47 major airports. The number of people exposed to more than 50 aircraft noise events exceeding 70 dB per day was estimated to be 1 million in 2017 for the same airports; this is 60% more than in 2005.

If the latest aircraft types now entering the fleet deliver their expected noise benefits, the total population exposed to Lden 55 dB and Lnight 50 dB noise levels around the 47 major airports could stabilise and even start to decrease by 2030. This forecast assumes that there will be no further airport expansion and no change in population around these airports. Furthermore, around 110 airports could handle more than 50,000 annual aircraft movements by 2040, compared to 82 airports in 2017, thereby affecting new populations.

What is the noise energy index?
When an aircraft flies to an airport, and later departs again, the area around an airport is exposed to a certain amount of noise energy. The ‘noise energy’ index uses certified aircraft noise data to calculate a proxy for the total noise energy received on the ground during an aircraft landing and take-off, irrespective of how the aircraft is operated. The individual noise energy from each flight operation is then summed at the European level.


Aircraft noise in context
While individual aircraft have become less noisy due to technological improvements, the growing amount of air traffic in Europe means that an important part of the population is still exposed to problematic noise levels. In the EU, aircraft noise is the third biggest source of noise exposure after road and rail traffic. The European Environment Agency has estimated that more than 4.1 million people were exposed to Lden levels above 55 dB from aircraft at 85 major airports (over 50,000 movements per year) in 2011, which accounted for 3.2% of the total population exposed to this noise level from all sources covered by the EU Environmental Noise Directive [4].

Combining indicators

Figure 1.11 presents the relative evolution of key air traffic and environmental indicators since 2005. This shows an increase in economic and connectivity benefits from aviation (measured in passenger kilometres flown) with a lower rate of increase in environmental impacts.

Member State actions on climate change and noise

The EU Environmental Noise Directive [6] requires noise action plans to be drawn up by Member States addressing the main sources of noise, including aviation, with the aim of reducing the impact of noise upon populations. The first action plans were developed in 2008 and thereafter again in 2013 and 2018. Member States have identified a range of specific measures in their action plans to address noise from aviation-related sources. These include operational measures which reduce noise from aircraft operations (e.g. optimised flight procedures, airport night time flight restrictions, charges for noisier aircraft), and measures focused on reducing noise at the receiver (e.g. sound insulation of houses). Out of the 85 major airports in the EU (airports with more than 50,000 movements in 2011), approximately two thirds had adopted an action plan at the end of 2018.