‘It’s easy to stand with the crowd, it takes courage to stand alone’ – air travel boost means we could see airport bottlenecks make a concerning return as travel restrictions are slowly eased

2 June, 2021

Back in Aug-2019, European airports welcomed more than 262 million passengers, according to data from ACI Europe, the European industry trade association which advances the collective interests of Europe's airports and promotes professional excellence in airport management and operations.

While Aug-2021 levels will still be significantly down on those seen in the pre-pandemic era, on-going and expected further easing of travel restrictions both within Europe and beyond on the back of improving epidemiological situations, will see the continent's airports welcoming back travellers at an accelerating rate.

ACI Europe projects that passenger traffic is set to increase nearly three-fold from the 47 million passenger estimate for May-2021 to around 125 million passengers in Aug-2021 and has warned about potential risks of travellers having to spend hours at Europe's airports over the summer period due to COVID-19 measures and checks.

Although this will still be well below the pre-pandemic traffic levels, managing such an increase will amount to an "unprecedented operational challenge" says the association due to the unique combination of a range of factors.

Many airports around Europe were already hitting an infrastructure tipping point before the novel coronavirus arrived, as the industry was growing faster than sufficient capacity could be provided to support demand.

Facilities were becoming overstretched. The pandemic has given them air to breathe, but growing demand will soon bring back the problem, with added complications such as social distancing, additional border checks and more adding to the pressure.

ACI Europe's director general Olivier Jankovec has warned the level of both uncertainty and complexity in planning for the restart "is just mind blowing for now". He said with each passing day, the prospect of travellers "enduring widespread chaos" at airports this summer "is becoming more real" and has and urgently called on governments to step up advance planning on the full range of issues involved and work more closely with airports and airlines.

The implementation of physical distancing where possible through all airport processes has resulted in constrained spaces across terminals - severely reducing available physical capacity and increasing passenger processing times.

These operational impacts are particularly pronounced during peak times and ACI Europe warns that the current plans of airlines are pointing to air traffic being very much concentrated on peak periods this summer, worse than last year or even summer 2019 at some airports.

Traffic peaks are a usual feature of airport operations driven by airline scheduling, with airport facilities designed to efficiently accommodate the concentration of large passenger volumes. But, doing that "becomes extremely challenging when capacity is reduced as a result of physical distancing and when seamless operational processes are no longer possible due to additional COVID-19 checks," says ACI Europe.

Then there is the issue of multiple and diverse COVID-19 checks. Passengers are currently subjected to additional checks at airports aimed at verifying COVID-19 test certificates, passenger locator forms and quarantine documentation.

These checks are usually performed by public authorities, airlines and/or ground handling companies. and vary depending on their point of origin and destination, based on rules which "remain largely unaligned and unstable across Europe," according to ACI Europe.

In addition, they are being carried at multiple times both at departure and upon arrival, most of the time manually - resulting in inefficiencies and considerably slowing passenger processing time. For example, checks on COVID-19 tests upon departure are currently duplicated or even triplicated at 77% of Europe's airports, according to the trade association.

Airline seat capacity in Europe in the last week of May (week commencing 24-May-2021) was around a third (-65.5%) of 2019 levels, but the rate of decline had now narrowed for five straight weeks, improving by 8.1 percentage points over that time, reports CAPA - Centre for Aviation in a recent analysis article: European airline traffic lags capacity climb as summer peak nears.

Europe's capacity trend is "still far behind other regions," says the CAPA article, even though the gap is narrowing. It shows the next weakest was Middle East, where seat capacity was down by -53.4% versus 2019, while Africa was down by -48.9%, Latin America by -40.4%, Asia Pacific by -37.9% and North America by -32.7%.

Based on airline schedules filed with OAG and CAPA seat configuration data, scheduled capacity for Europe in 2Q2021 is now projected to be down by -65% from 2019 levels (i.e. at 35% of 2019 levels, compared with 27% for 1Q2021), while there is also continued trimming of schedules for 3Q2021 that will see projections for the rest of the year further diluted.