Is the Welsh Dragon starting to roar? Capital gains in Cardiff as traffic rises, with good prospects for the summer ahead

29 April, 2019

The latest decade could be described as a tough one for Cardiff airport, which serves the Welsh capital city. However, a look at its operational highlights for FY2018/19 presents a different story, one of significant traffic growth, increased bookings in the package holiday segment and the retention of a medium -to-long-haul service which at one point seemed to be under threat.


  • Cardiff airport is fighting back from its 2012-14 slump, reporting its highest passenger levels in a decade;
  • Scheduled and charter carriers at Cardiff are reporting increased capacity for 2019/20;
  • A standout service with Qatar Airways to Doha appears to no longer to be under threat having looked like it previously could be cut.

Annual traffic losses of -13% to -18% during the first four years of the decade have been replaced by growth of up to +16% between 2015 and 2018 although in common with many other UK airports that rate has reduced so far in 2019, in this case down to +1.6% in the first two months.

The 1.58 million passengers in 2018 was the highest figure attracted in ten years but it is still some way off the 2.1 million it achieved in 2007, which was the busiest ever year for Cardiff airport. On the other hand it did go as low as barely above one million (2012-2014), the 'critical mass' below which operations are typically stuck at 'unprofitable'.

CHART - This decade has been one of mixed fortunes for Cardiff airport, but the struggles during the first half have been replaced by strong growth during the secondSource:CAPA - Centre for Aviation and UK Civil Aviation Authority

The airport, which was taken over by the government in Mar-2013 from Spanish operator Abertis, which was accused rightly or wrongly of not devoting sufficient effort to its development, will be pleased to have kept pace with the neighbouring, rival and larger Bristol airport, across the Severn Estuary in England, and one of that country's better performers in recent years. Bristol is a base city for easyJet.

Describing "an exciting 12 months", Cardiff airport reports that travel on scheduled flights with Qatar Airways, Vueling, Ryanair, Flybe and KLM grew by +11%. However it does not differentiate between those airlines. Qatar Airways is the important element there, the airport's only scheduled long-haul route.

The Blue Swan Daily reported last year (Jul-2018) that the Qatar Airways service, which began in May of that year, had come under review, its CEO describing the route as experiencing "disappointing" results. It seems to have ridden that particular storm and Doha is now the ninth "most popular" route at the airport.

While charter travel, and especially package holidays, have been in decline at most UK airports, Cardiff reports that passenger numbers on TUI, Thomas Cook and Balkan Holidays increased by +5% in the period. What's more, Balkan Holidays (BH Air), a specialist in package deals to Bulgaria, has reported a +10% increase in bookings for summer. While 'Brexit' is often offered as a reason for any fall in European bookings it seems as if in this instance it may have contributed to an increase as holidaymakers seek to protect themselves from currency fluctuations by pre-paying as much as possible in sterling.

As for the 2019/20 outlook, TUI will begin operating flights to Dubrovnik, Naples, and Hurghada during the 2019 summer schedule, adding 100,000 seats. That might also increase TUI's seat capacity share, which currently sits at 25.7%.

CHART - Flybe is the largest operator at Cardiff airport, where the traditional leisure airlines still retain a strong presenceSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c29-Apr-2019)

Thomas Cook meanwhile will operate its 2019 summer schedule on larger aircraft, adding 29,000 extra seats across its 11 routes, including a new one to Tunisia. Its seat capacity is 10.5% momentarily, making more than a third of all Cardiff seats on the UK's big charter-scheduled airlines, considerably more than at most regional airports. Ryanair will more than double its routes by adding three new links to Barcelona, Malta and Malaga.

None of these airlines fly the most popular route however. That is Cardiff-Amsterdam, which is operated by KLM, with many onward flights available from that hub complementing the point-to-point demand. That says much about Cardiff's relations with London. There are no flights to any London airport, a city centre-to-city centre distance of 151 miles, while there are to several other British cities.

Moreover, rail services could be better and would be improved by the proposed Western Rail Approach to Heathrow. Local politicians and businesses were generally in favour of Heathrow's bid for a third runway on the basis that long-haul services would be difficult to attract to Cardiff (then it won the Doha route) and that a third runway with slots reserved for domestic services might speed up the realisation of a direct Heathrow-Cardiff service.

The fly in the ointment here is Flybe, which has more routes than any other carrier and just under a third (32.1%) of capacity. As a recent The Blue Swan Daily article reported, Flybe is to end jet aircraft operations at Cardiff, which may make some of its routes less attractive although all are within comfortable range of its Bombardier Dash 8-400 aircraft.