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ACI Europe and the airport ‘investment gap’

ACI Europe has followed its North American counterpart in highlighting the “lack of investment” in airports in Europe, especially from the private sector, and on how that impacts on the ‘decarbonisation’ of airports.

This appears to be a response to the growing tide of our-environment anti-flight movements, which have the capacity to impact heavily on transport choices in the future.

But is there really a lack of investment on that continent? To what extent should investors – public or private – be expected to finance environmental protection around airports, which are public spaces used by a wide variety of traffic?

Should they be expected to forego profitable enterprises such as car parking and make provision instead for alternative travel modes that legislators wish to see replace them? And in any case, can anyone be certain that the growth in travel is going to continue unabated? These all form part of the complex framework around growing awareness of the need to take action to slow the rate of aviation emissions.

Summary

  • ACI Europe perceives an investment gap of EUR12 billion in European airports and seeks more investment on the pretext that is a prerequisite for ‘decarbonisation’.
  • Both the public and private sectors are already catering heavily to environmental demands.
  • But the private sector’s concession targets are usually more tangible, and expressed in passenger numbers and comfort investment.
  • The actual level of investment in Europe is quite high, especially when compared to North America.
  • Some measures that can be taken have no relation to infrastructural capital investment.

Europe claims a similar ‘investment gap’ to that of North America

It has become commonplace to read comments made by Airports Council International-North America concerning a perceived lack of investment in airports – in the U.S. especially. Some of the concern is genuine, although there are numerous large projects across that country at primary airports, even if there are no new ones being built.

At the same time, the private sector continues to make its mark by way of public-private partnership (P3) agreements to build or refurbish terminals and undertake associated construction. The potential leasing of St Louis Lambert Airport might breathe fresh life into the moribund airport privatisation programme, which could again lead to capacity improvements.

The much-maligned U.S. President has at least tried to facilitate private sector entry into the airport sector for this purpose but has been held up by Democrat resistance in Congress, along with just about everything else.

Claims there is a EUR12 billion shortfall, plus EU25 billion for environmental ‘retrofitting’

Now it is the turn of Europe to voice its concerns. ACI Europe’s Director-General Olivier Jankovec said recently at an Airport Investment Symposium that over the next five years Europe is facing a EUR12.3 billion airport investment gap, which is expected to add to a 12% shortfall between needed and realised airport investment since 2013.

Mr Jankovec said that giving airports the freedom and licence to invest is a prerequisite for decarbonisation, noting that retrofitting existing passenger terminals and developing new ones to the highest energy efficiency standards would alone require at least EUR25.9 billion in additional investments.

There is truth in that, but the private sector is already well established at European airports (and therefore usually has a ‘licence to invest’, unless the regulation is draconian).

Airport environmental investment is not new at European airports

In fact, environmental investment at airports was being made long ago by the public sector (which tends to be more concerned with these things – especially municipalities, most of which these days have a green charter). For example, at Manchester since the early 1990s, from which was spawned the CATE programme at the city’s Metropolitan University, now a world leader in this area.

Also, where action has been taken, for example, to install solar panel fields to power airports (and often to feed that power back into the local or national grid) it has not always been airports operated by the private sector that are doing it.

Furthermore, if a public sector airport owner signs a concession or lease deal with a private operator and there are (as is usually the case) capital investment requirements to be met, while the municipality might wish to seek ways to ‘decarbonise’ the facility, its preoccupation – and that of the private sector partner – will be to add capacity as cost effectively as possible. That is the main reason that such deals are done, and often that means that environmental considerations will be somewhere down the pecking order unless they are very visible and act as ‘PR’, as is the case with solar panels.  

It was perhaps no coincidence that the corporate affairs director of the Global Infrastructure Investor Association said: "Investors stand ready to deliver the funding to meet customer, capacity and environmental improvement projects”.

For all the efforts of climate change activists, ‘environmental improvement’ is going to come last until it is patently obvious that many air passengers are choosing to travel the oceans in a yacht rather than fly; many, not just one.

During the symposium the claim was made that against a background of generally lagging investments in transport infrastructure Europe is facing a EUR12.3 billion airport investment gap over the next five years and that such a gap will add to a 12% shortfall between needed and realised airport investment since 2013.

Does that claim stack up?

Five years is a very short period for major airport construction projects

Firstly, five years is the blink of an eye in airport investment terms. A typical runway project will take more like ten years from concept to delivery so anything that is not already underway is not going to see the light of day in that time span.

To understand the timescales one need only look at: Munich Airport’s third runway (deferred to at least 2023 before construction even begins); Vienna Airport’s third runway (which won’t open until 2030 at the earliest); and the continuing five-decade shambles that is London Heathrow’s third runway.

And it is runways which provide the capacity, not terminals. Bolt-on temporary terminals can be erected very quickly, and on a big scale, such as at Amsterdam Schiphol.

Existing and proposed projects at European airports and new ones total USD166 billion

As for the actual level of construction projects at, and investment in, airports in Europe, according to the CAPA data centre there are no less than 313 individual projects at European airports right now – though Europe does include Russia here – at a cost of USD137 billion.

Those figures compare with 196 in North America at an equivalent level of investment, indicating that in Europe the projects are more widespread. The number of new airports being built or proposed in Europe is 42, at a cost of USD28.8 billion, and in North America the tally is precisely…two.

Two observations might be made accordingly. Firstly that Europe, even if it does include Russia here, is well ahead of North America in the provision of airport capacity through identifiable investments. Secondly, that a European ‘shortfall’ of EUR12.3 billion (USD13.6 billion) is small beer in the overall scheme of things.

So when ACI says that with Europe “already accounting for more than half of the World’s most congested airports, the lack of airport investment will compromise its competitive position”, one must exercise caution.

Quite apart from the lack of solid evidence that there is an investment shortfall, events, both foreseen and unforeseen, will continue to impact demand. Those events might be economic crises (another one is due), conflict, or airline failures (of which there have been many in the last few months and years, leaving vacant slots that sometimes take a long time to fill).

The flight-shamers and Generation Z are driving the agenda

And that omits the aforementioned acolytes of Greta Thunberg and the anti-flying movements. Although they are yet to reach a credible level for influencing the need for additional infrastructure, they could do so very quickly. Especially as they have now been joined by a globally known rock band, Coldplay, which is loudly trumpeting that it will not 'tour' its forthcoming album because of concerns for "what it might do the environment." They are increasingly backed by governments that do not see the need to enforce ‘decarbonisation’ on the industry by ‘retrofitting’ terminals so much as a need to divert air passengers onto alternative travel modes altogether. The so-called ‘Generation Z’ is going to have a much greater say in this than travel-mad ‘millennials’ ever had.

Finally, there is a conundrum where the environmental ‘cleaning up’ of airports is concerned and that is – who is responsible for what? The CO2 emissions debate at Heathrow, for example, has switched from aircraft emissions to those of surface vehicles at and around the airport, in what has become the ecologists’ last stand against the third runway. In the case of the airport’s own vehicles, most of them can be switched to electrical power or some form of hybrid or biofuel(s), and many airports do this already.

No amount of new construction or infrastructure investment will impact on that.

What responsibility should an airport have for the roads around it?

Where non-airport vehicles are concerned the question is – is the airport responsible for them? Many vehicles using an airport and its surrounding road infrastructure are part of the local and national supply chain and are equally part of that road infrastructure, which can be complex: Heathrow, for example, sits close to the junction of the M4 and M25 motorways and it is hardly unique in that respect.

Should a private investor be required to pick up the bill for dealing with the ‘pollution’ that arises accordingly when many of the vehicles have no direct connection to the airport?

Moreover, should any private investor in an airport be required to forego the profits it can make from car parking, drop-off fees, taxis and (increasingly) from rideshare operators in favour of provision of public transport facilities for buses (which are still mainly ‘dirty’) and for trains that might actually shift the balance of travel preferences away from the airport?

It is a complex subject and there are no easy answers.

Ultimately, it should never be assumed that air transport growth will continue unabated, despite what ACI and IATA think (with a few notable exceptions amongst their staffers), and that there will ever be a ‘capacity shortfall’ causing people to be unable to travel when they want to (which is another scare story that often does the rounds).

It might even be argued that ‘retrofitting’ an airport for the comfort and convenience of a dwindling number of passengers rather than for ‘energy standards’ that might have a marginal impact might come to be the norm.

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