Europe’s saturated airports: a brake on the summer’s recovery

The rapid recovery in air travel during the summer months caught the air transport sector with insufficient manpower to cope with the growth in passengers. According to our analysis, this has led to severe airport saturation problems in a large part of Europe, primarily in outbound countries, acting as a brake on tourism’s recovery in Europe.

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Air travel picked up strongly this summer, returning to its pre-pandemic levels in almost all western Europe thanks to the lifting of many travel restrictions and the easing of the pandemic. The number of flights operated at airports in continental Europe during the summer months reached 2.8 million, close to the 3.2 million recorded for the same period in 2019.

However, this rapid recovery in demand has led to airports across Europe becoming extremely saturated. The images of thousands of suitcases abandoned at Heathrow airport (London) have not gone unnoticed, this being due to the inability of ground staff to cope with the large number of flights, as well as the requests from German airport authorities for airlines to cancel some of their scheduled flights in July and August in order to avoid collapsing the system.

This saturation has a clear cause: a lack of personnel, both of airlines and airport operators. During the downtime caused by COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, air transport companies were forced to restructure in order to reduce costs. According to Eurostat data, the number of employees in the EU’s air transport sector posted a 20% drop in Q1 2022 compared with the same period in 2019. Once demand began to pick up again, the sector’s ability to recover its workforce has been affected by labour shortages and the excessive red tape (especially in terms of security checks and specific training) that newly recruited airline and airport staff must face, which can delay the hiring process by several months.

Saturation index: how can we quantify saturation?

To quantify the extent of air transport saturation in Europe, we used Eurocontrol’s flight delay database which collects data from all airports in continental Europe and provides accurate evidence of the high saturation experienced during the summer months. As can be seen in the chart below, the number of flights taking off on time at airports in northern Europe, the region that emits the most tourists, went from 82% in the January 2022 on average to a low of 43% in the first week of July.

To better gauge the saturation of each airport, we developed a saturation index that reflects the volume of delayed flights occurring during airport operations. We have used the difference between the proportion of flights arriving on time at an airport and the proportion of flights departing on time. If an airport is operating normally, it will have a saturation index close to zero because it doesn’t generate delays in the flights it operates (the proportion of punctual arrivals and departures will be equal). On the other hand, if an airport is saturated, it will have a positive saturation index because the number of flights that take off on time is lower than the number of flights arriving on time; i.e. delays are generated during airport operations.

To better gauge the saturation of each airport, we have developed a saturation index that reflects the volume of delayed flights occurring during airport operations.

Punctual arrivals and departures of flights operated in northern Europe

Last actualization: 21 December 2022 - 11:30

The chart above shows that the saturation index places the most complicated time for northern European airports during the first half of July, when it stood at around 13 points (61% punctual arrivals vs. 48% punctual departures). Another point worth noting is that the trend in airport saturation in northern Europe has been downward in recent months (the saturation index stands at 7.5 pp), despite the fact that the volume of air traffic has remained at an appreciably high level. This is a sign that the sector is beginning to adjust its capacity to the new demand.

Which countries have the most saturated airports?

If we look at the index for different countries and airports, as shown in the chart below, it can be seen that those countries that tend to be outbound countries for tourism have encountered the greatest saturation problems. It’s also evident that each country’s saturation problems tend to be more intensely concentrated at its major airports. Three groups of countries can be distinguished:

  • The airports of the Netherlands, France and Germany have shown the highest saturation (saturation index above 20 points during the summer months). In these cases, strikes in the sector have further complicated the situation at their major airports. Moreover, these are the three EU countries that saw the biggest job losses in the airport sector during the pandemic.
  • The United Kingdom, with Heathrow airport at the forefront (a saturation index of 21 points in summer), has been another case in point of airport saturation in Europe. Here the sector’s recruitment complications have been further compounded by the severe labour shortages caused by Brexit.
  • Southern European countries have managed to maintain moderate saturation levels. In these countries their tourism sectors, crucial for their domestic economies, were relatively more protected during the pandemic. For example, in the case of Spain the furloughs agreed for employees and the fact that the state holds a majority share in company that operates all its airports has helped to maintain the sector’s workforce and therefore cope with the increase in demand.

Southern European countries have managed to maintain moderate saturation levels. Their tourism sectors, crucial for their domestic economies, were relatively more protected during the pandemic.

The consequences of saturation

Airport saturation in Europe limited the growth in air travel during the summer, preventing a full recovery in European tourism.8 As we can see in the chart below, the volume of air travel recorded in summer in Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, France was far from that recorded in the summer of 2019. In the case of Germany, Düsseldorf airport posted a decline of more than 30%. On the other hand, in countries without saturation problems such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, air travel was close to its 2019 levels or even higher, as in the cases of Palma de Mallorca airport and Greek airports as a whole.

  • 8. The correlation between the saturation index and the rate of change of flights with respect to 2019 points to the fact that, for every pp of saturation, the rate of change fell by 0.7 pp.

By the summer of 2023, it’s expected that the air transport sector will be able to adjust to the new context of increased international travel and get back to employment levels similar to those before the pandemic. The saturation problems observed this summer should therefore be completely resolved, providing an important lever for growth in British and German tourism.

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