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.