EUROCONTROL has released its study called 'Challenges of Growth', which found that despite the current economic crisis, European passenger traffic is still expected to increase from the current 10 million p/a to 20.4 million p/a by 2030. EUROCONTROL also forecasts that 20 of the largest airports in Europe will be completely saturated by 2030, with 11% of flights not being accommodated on the ground.
While the European Parliament and the Council are fast-processing their review of the new Single European Sky package proposed by the European Commission, this authoritative EUROCONTROL study sends a strong warning signal about the need for the EU to align capacity on the ground with capacity in the air.
The organisation believes that demand in the long term is still set to rise despite the economic downturn and prospect of slower growth in the short term brought about by maturing European markets and higher fuel-related costs. As a consequence, airports are going to run out of space, and - according to David Marsh, Manager of Forecasting & Statistics - "with half of each day's flights going through one of the saturated airports, a small delay at one airport could rapidly escalate to infect the whole European air network."
One flight in two faces congestion, delays and cancellation by 2030
As a consequence of the lack of airport capacity and climate change one flight in two will risk delays or cancellation at highly congested airports.
The study finds that even taking the economic downturn into account, demand for flights in Europe will rise from 10 million today to 20.4 million in 2030. Even though airports are working to make the most of their capacity and expanding to meet demand, on current plans, they will only be able to handle 18.1 million of those flights, leaving 2.3 million flights a year or 6,300 flights a day un-accommodated. That equates to 170 million passengers being affected each year.
As a result, airport congestion is set to rise substantially - by 2030, around 20 of the largest airports will be saturated, i.e. operating at full capacity, for 8 hours or more a day.
Extreme weather delays to become more common?
The risk of delay will be higher too, because weather-related delays are likely to be more common. Aviation has been working hard to understand and reduce its impact on the environment. Now, for the first time, EUROCONTROL is looking at the reverse effect: the likely impact of climate change on air traffic. Bouts of extreme weather will occur more frequently and probably be more severe, bringing further disruption to already saturated airports. And as higher temperatures become the norm across Europe, holiday patterns are likely to change. While airlines will be able to change their routes to cope with this, airports, which require substantial infrastructure, are not so flexible.
Unusually persistent fog allied with freezing conditions caused three continuous days of virtually zero activity at the London region airports in early Dec-07 and a cold snap in the same period this year promises much of the same. Although that is hardly symbolic of 'global warming' the other side of the equation is the prediction that large parts of southern Europe, and especially the still highly popular Spanish Costas, will become too hot to live in, never mind take a vacation at, within 50 years. Similar claims have been made about the Gulf States.
Whether or not one believes in the global warming theories, unusual weather is more often than not the case these days.
According to David Marsh, "prosperity in Europe relies on the smooth movement of people and goods, and the air transport industry has a key role to play in this. Whatever capacity can be delivered at airports, the outlook is for a heavily congested future. Thanks to climate change, demand may be elsewhere than today. We need to start thinking of an agile air transport network, one that brings together people and technology so that it can react effectively both as the day's events unfold and as demand changes by the year, unencumbered by the twentieth-century concerns of national borders: a real Single European Sky, an agile pan- European system, if we are to cope with the challenges of the future".
While there are new airports opening or set to open in Spain (Ciudad Real, Castellon, Murcia, Lerida), and plans for them (mainly of the 'low cost' variety) in several others like Portugal (Lisbon), France (Nantes), Italy (Frosinone), Poland, Turkey and Ukraine, there is the reality of the decision on the third runway at London Heathrow being put back yet again, well into 2009. Many doubt this critical project (for London) will ever see the light of day now.
ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec commented, "The implications are clear. European airports need to be in a condition to develop further their infrastructure. For many of them, getting the license to grow is an increasingly uphill struggle. Despite ever-evolving and genuinely ambitious environmental activities, airport capacity is becoming the flashing light that many local and national governments are all-too reluctant to address. This also means that European airports already need to invest more in new facilities. This is no small challenge, particularly in the present economic and financial conditions and in view of frequently inadequate economic regulation at national level."
But what about the existing spare capacity?
But at the same time, what Eurocontrol (and ACI) appears not to concede is the spare capacity - runway and terminal - that exists at many European airports, while insular government policies continue to direct traffic towards overcrowded ones in particular parts of the country. The UK is a case in point. There is nothing set in stone that dictates that so much traffic has to go through any of these 'saturated' airports. While that is something EUROCONTROL could do nothing about, it would help if it at least acknowledged the fact.