The unthinkable has happened: London, Amsterdam, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore crash out of world’s top 50 airports

Some of the world’s leading hubs, airports that have maintained their positions on top of the rankings of the world’s busiest gateways, have suffered a huge fall from grace, dropping out of the global top 50 airports, due to the effects of COVID-19.

London Heathrow – formerly ranked tenth by weekly departing frequencies, has crashed to 123rd as the UK’s harsh lockdowns kept travellers at home. It might be a low point for Heathrow, as the UK’s deep freeze of movement restrictions over the winter starts to thaw and summer travel beckons. But it will be a long way back for Heathrow – and many other hubs like it.

Heathrow is one of 14 gateway titans to have fallen way down the rankings of the world’s busiest airports. Frankfurt (now 54th in the world); Amsterdam (60); Paris CDG (70); Bangkok (76); New York La Guardia (77); Madrid (81); Seoul ICN (121); Rome (140); Hong Kong (141); Singapore (159); Barcelona (160); Munich (161) and Toronto Pearson (198) have all seen their traffic crushed by Covid-19.

In their place, airports in China, mainly, have found their way up the rankings, entering the top 50 for the first time.

Airport route profiles: A less connected world

The pathway to recovery is not an easy one. Some international routes will be partially re-established (mostly bilaterally, such as the Australia-New Zealand ‘bubble’). But these arrangements will be subject to strict conditions and potential rapid closures, which could further undermine traveller confidence.

Global vaccination roll-outs will be spotty, so many doors will remain closed as vaccine programmes drag on through 2021 and into 2022 for much of the world. For those countries that do open up, multiple “passport” regimes and conflicting government border requirements will place great barriers to the re-establishment of former demand profiles that have fed the powerful hubs of the pre-Covid era.

As a result, many previously viable long-haul international routes will struggle to recover and frequencies will be lower, as business traffic is needed to support the route economics for the airlines. Airline partnerships – bilateral and multilateral – will increase in importance for long haul routes.

Long range narrow-body aircraft will lead the charge and short to medium haul, low yielding, leisure travel will prevail. LCCs will prosper, in the point-to-point markets they serve best.

In short, this is not the profile of demand the managers of the world’s leading hubs will be wanting to hear.

Europe’s hubs will be slowest to recover

The situation for the European hubs is even more challenging (eight of the world’s 14 hubs that have dropped out of the top 50 are in Europe), because this is also where environmental pressures will be the greatest.

Long-haul aviation accounts for approximately 40% of aviation emissions and could come under the spotlight again as aviation starts to recover.

The World’s Top 50 Airports – the Winners and Losers

The new look Global Top 50 Airports, courtesy of the Rankings tool within the online data offerings in the CAPA Membership service, reflect a point in time – the second week of April 2021 versus the same week in 2019. Things will look a lot different as the Northern Summer takes hold. But it makes for stark reading:

  • 14 Airports bowed out of Top 50: Frankfurt (now 54th in the world); Amsterdam (60); Paris CDG (70); Bangkok (76); New York La Guardia (77); Madrid (81); Seoul Incheon (121); London Heathrow (123); Rome (140); Hong Kong (141); Singapore (159); Barcelona (160); Munich (161) and Toronto Pearson (198).
  • 15 Airport New Entries into Top 50: Replacing these titans were mainly Chinese airports: Shanghai Hongqiao (Shanghai’s domestic airport), Beijing Daxing (recently opened) and soaring into the Top 50 were airports in Hangzhou, as well as Nanjing, Wuhan, Changsha, Xiamen, Zhengzhou, Qingdao and Urumqi. The US had two new entries: Salt Lake City, Fort Lauderdale and in Asia, Ho Chi Minh City and Mumbai entered the Top 50.
  • 22 Airports in Top 50 gained places: US airports dominated the list of risers: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Charlotte, Seattle, Phoenix, Detroit, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and especially Orlando and Miami in Florida. Chinese airports Guangzhou and Shanghai Pudong gained, while Kunming, Xian, Chongqing and Shenzhen soared up the rankings. The only others in the Top 50 to rise were Delhi, Jakarta, Istanbul and Sydney
  • 12 Airports lost ground within the Top 50: Several US hubs and coastal gateways lost ground, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. Dubai and Moscow Sheremetyevo also fell in the rankings, as did Tokyo Haneda, Mexico City and Beijing Capital (because of the launch of services at Beijing Daxing).
  •  1 Airport held the same ranking in the Top 50: Houston

World’s Top 50 Airports by Departing Frequencies: Second week of April 2019 vs Second week of April 2021

Aviation’s eastbound axis

As the industry has developed, the axis of the global aviation industry has been gradually moving east. The heart of aviation has for many decades focussed on the busy transatlantic flows, but we’ve seen a massive shift towards the Middle East of the past decades with the emergence of the big Gulf hub carriers, while the rise of India and the Asia-Pacific region will see the latter surpass both North America and Europe in terms of passenger traffic in the future.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of the world’s airlines, predicted long before Covid hit the world that China would displace the USA as the largest aviation market in the world, India would overtake the UK’s third position by 2024, and Indonesia would rise up the rankings to become the world’s fourth largest aviation market by 2030.

2020 provides a glimpse into the future

In the space of just one year much of that had already happened. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic artificially influenced air travel data for 2020 and it seems has fast-forwarded the industry into a new reality. IATA Economics has indicated that the world’s global air transport axis made a significant shift in 2020, one that it says has moved it close to the centre of gravity it had projected for 2039, based on its latest air passenger forecast.

A return to normal?

The jump forward over 20 years will only be temporary. “This is mostly a symbolic coincidence,” acknowledges IATA, but it does highlight how the large emerging markets in Asia will become more and more prominent. This is already being evidenced by the rapid recovery and subsequent importance of the Chinese domestic air transport market. In 2019, China domestic represented 9.8% of total global RPKs. In 2020, this became 19.9%, reports IATA.

China though will lose its new status of the world’s largest aviation market in 2022, as the US regains its former position, but it will permanently take hold the crown again from around 2025. For now, the centre for air transport will head back west in 2021, but its location in 2020 to the south of Iran, based on the weighting of the coordinates of all airports worldwide by the seats they each flew in the year, gives us a glimpse into the future.

The evolution continues

Right now, the data in this insight may be just a temporary snapshot, but it is a clear sign of the normal that we will see 20 years into the future, albeit traffic levels will (hopefully) be much higher than those seen in 2019, the peak year for air travel and the air transport industry more sustainable after adopting increasing measures to be environmentally responsible.

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