Airports are a vital part of our aviation system and important for the European economy. Air traffic is expected to continue to grow in the future, as it has done over the past 50 years. However, unless action is taken soon, Europe will not be able to meet the increased demand for flights because of a shortage of capacity on the ground.
According to Eurocontrol in its Challenges of Growth 2013 study, the European aviation market is becoming more mature. Nevertheless, in 2035, it is expected that there will be 50% more flights than in 2012 i.e. 14.4 million in 2035, compared to 9 million in 2012. However, plans to increase airport capacity have been scaled back, with an estimated increase in capacity of just 17% by 2035.
If this current planned increase in capacity is not reviewed, then 1.9 million flights would not be accommodated in 2035. That would mean about 120 million passengers would be unable to fly. Put another way, the equivalent of about nine runways' worth of capacity is needed.
Congestion is also going to be a bigger problem. Unless action is taken, in 2035, more than 20 airports would be running at, or close to capacity compared to just three in 2012, resulting in increased delays, as air traffic management struggles to cope.
Action is needed, and soon. Europe needs to make the best possible use of its existing infrastructure. At the same time, quality and efficiency of services at airports must be improved. To ensure its continued success, Europe needs to modernise its aviation model.
Airlines, airports, air traffic management, groundhandling and other transport services are interconnected and need to cooperate efficiently, to meet increasing demand for flights. Airports themselves should not be considered in isolation but rather as part of a European airport network. This would ensure better connectivity, which is vital for business and the economy to grow.
While Member States are in charge of airport infrastructure and are therefore at the forefront of the capacity challenge, the EU can also help improve European airport network by highlighting common issues and by updating current airport rules. It can also encourage investment, especially through the use of innovative financial instruments, so as to steer growth, secure cohesion within the EU and enhance its economic, societal and cultural links with the rest of the world.
EU policy is aimed at supporting efforts to boost airport capacity where there is demand, and ensuring airlines and passenger enjoy high standards of safety and service. As part of these efforts, the European Observatory on Airport Capacity & Quality plays an important role as a forum bringing together Member States, the Commission and aviation stakeholders. The aim is to explore those areas where Europe could support national efforts on airport capacity and quality.
In 2014 a new mandate was drawn up based on the Commission's 2011 Communication accompanying the Airport package and Eurocontrol's 'Challenges of Growth 2013' study, which examined the problem of capacity shortages at major EU airports. Three priority tasks were identified for action in 2014-2015:
- Learning from national, regional and local strategies on airport capacity;
- Assessing any gaps in understanding the sources of airport delays in Europe; and
- Quantifying the economic impact of unaccommodated demand due to airport capacity constraints and exploring the environmental variables influencing airport capacity.
Reports on these three issues were endorsed by the Observatory in June 2015:
- Final report of the Task Force 'Economic impact of unaccommodated demand and environmental variables influencing airport capacity'
- Final report of the Task Force 'Delays to air transport in Europe: Methods of measuring, reporting and analysing'
- Final report of the Task Force 'Learning from national, regional and local strategies on airport capacity'. Airport capacity in the EU: a strategic perspective
Further information and documentation on the Observatory's work is available on the Commission's register of expert groups