Air traffic

Continuing the trend reported in the last report, the recovery after the 2008 financial crisis led to a new record high of 9.25 million flights in 2019 at EU27+EFTA airports ( Figure 1.1. ). Passenger numbers also peaked in 2019, with more than 800 million passengers flying from EU27+EFTA airports. This passenger growth was driven by increased flights, the use of larger aircraft and a record load factor of 83.3%. The combination of these factors led to the number of passengers per flight increasing by 51% in 2019 compared to 2005. In addition, with longer-distance flying continuing to grow more quickly than short-distance, the passenger kilometres flown nearly doubled. The volume of cargo transported from EU27+EFTA airports increased by 60% between 2005 and 2019, which was less than the increase in passengers ( Figure 1.7. ).

Passenger travel came almost to a halt in early 2020 as COVID-19 spread around the world and restrictions were put in place curtailing travel and grounding flights. The number of daily flights in Europe fell to just 12% of 2019 volumes in April 2020 ( Figure 1.2. ). A recovery was short-lived during the summer of 2020 as further waves of the pandemic arrived leading to more lockdowns. With the roll-out of vaccination programmes, Europe saw a rapid recovery of tourism and travel during the summer of 2021, which was consistent with high forecasts, though still with relatively little medium- to long-haul traffic. The recovery was unbalanced with some Mediterranean countries exceeding 2019 flight counts, while some northern countries remained at 50-60% of 2019 levels. Late 2021 saw another traffic downturn, triggered by the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

In response to the pandemic in 2020, airlines rapidly switched focus to repatriating stranded people and moving urgent cargo. Indeed, all-cargo airline operators and business aviation largely escaped a decline in flights during 2020 and 2021, and consequently roughly doubled their market share ( Figure 1.1. ). This does not take into account a significant number of passenger aircraft that were adapted for cargo use, while still being classified as ‘traditional scheduled’. Domestic flights accounted for a larger share of the market, as they were less restricted than international travel. This was particularly relevant for countries such as Norway with its challenging geography and dispersed population that has a well-developed domestic aviation market.

The forecast out to 2050 includes three different scenarios for how Europe and European aviation might develop in the future ( Figure 1.3. ). These scenarios take economic growth, sustainability goals and regulation into account, as well as airport capacity, high-speed rail and the arrival of new aircraft, fuel and propulsion. More details are provided in Appendix C. In the most- likely ‘base’ scenario flights recover from COVID-19 lows and then grow gradually towards 12.2 million flights at EU27+EFTA airports by 2050, which is an historically low average annual growth of 0.9% between 2019 and 2050. This represents around a 10-year delay in reaching the volume of flights described in the EAER 2019. The average annual growth rate of passenger kilometres between 2019 and 2050 is -0.3%, 1.1% and 1.7% for the low, base and high traffic scenarios respectively.

Aviation delivers connectivity, and past editions of this report have described how the number of city pairs with a regular scheduled service had grown faster than flights. That trend continued into 2019 with the number of city pairs served increasing 51% since 2005 to 8,161 ( Figure 1.4. ). Since flight growth was only 15% over the same period ( Figure 1.1. ), that implies that many lower-frequency connections were added to the network. As  Figure 1.4.  shows, much of this growth came from low-cost carriers connecting 5,100 city pairs in 2019, while traditional scheduled carriers connected 4,500 city pairs. Indeed, low-cost carriers were already providing more connectivity by 2015.

In the face of COVID-19, connectivity held up better (-24% in 2021 compared to 2019) than flights (-45% in 2021 compared to 2019). As flights were gradually re-introduced, many scheduled carriers prioritised the breadth of their network over the frequency of connections. This meant that passengers could still fly to their destination, but with less choice of departure times.

When comparing connections within Europe (‘intra’ EU27+EFTA) and between Europe and other regions (‘extra’ EU27+EFTA), the trends are similar. However, ‘intra’ connections offered by traditional scheduled carriers in 2019 have fallen by 10% compared to 2005, while ‘extra’ connections have increased 18%. This reflects the historic trend towards longer-distance flights and substitution by other transport modes over shorter distances.

Depending on the market, an aircraft can remain in service for about 30 years. While an aircraft follows a specific maintenance cycle, its performance can degrade over time due to engine and aerodynamic deterioration, leading to additional CO2 emissions [10] . Fleet renewal helps reduce aviation’s environmental impact as newer aircraft tend to be more fuel-efficient and quieter, therefore the average age of the European fleet is a good indicator of its environmental performance. The previous two editions of this report indicated that the European fleet, particularly the passenger fleet, was gradually ageing. While airlines were adding new aircraft because of market growth and retiring older aircraft, they were not doing it quickly enough to prevent the average age from rising.

The grounding of the Boeing 737MAX aircraft in Europe from March 2019 until early 2021 led to an increase in the average fleet age due to the radically reduced supply of new aircraft. This may explain the slight acceleration in the ageing rate of low-cost carriers in 2019 ( Figure 1.5. ). However, from 2020 this effect was outpaced by the impact of COVID-19. As during the financial crisis of 2008-2010, airlines responded to the impact of the pandemic in 2020-2021 by cutting costs, and grounding older and less-efficient aircraft.

The ranking of market segments by age is unchanged from previous reports: low-cost carriers have the youngest fleet on average, at 8.3 years in 2021, while charter and all-cargo have much older fleets, at nearly 22 years for all-cargo flights. While the passenger fleet (low-cost and traditional scheduled) was younger in 2021 than 2019, the increase in market share of cargo and business aviation has pushed the average age of the overall fleet up to 11.6 years.

The proportion of flights at EU27+EFTA airports that arrive at night (23:00 to 06:59) has gradually increased to match that of night departures, with 5.3% of total airport movements in 2019 ( Figure 1.6. ). While this is a small percentage change, it amounts to 240,000 more night arrivals in 2019 than in 2005 due to the growth in air traffic over this period. The growth comes primarily from an increase in arrivals shortly after an airport opens in the 06:00 to 07:00 local time period, often medium- or long-distance flights arriving from outside of Europe. More recently, there has also been a larger increase in the 23:00 to 23:59 period, as airlines increasingly find passengers for whom this is an attractive offer. In 2019, the top 10 busiest airports during the night time period represented 26% of all night movements, which is similar to the share of the top 10 busiest airports during the day time period (27%).