Ongoing restrictions to address Covid-19 and its variants continued to impact airport traffic into 2021, according to a full year 2021 report released recently by ACI (Airports Council International) Europe, which represents over 500 airports in 55 countries.
Passenger traffic at European airports rose by 37 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 but remained down by 59 percent over pre-pandemic 2019 levels losing 1.4 billion passengers, ACI said.
ACI findings reveal that the trend in 2021 was split with passenger traffic progressively picking up pace between June (-66.3 percent) and November (-35.2 percent) over 2019 but falling back again in December (-39.2 percent).
The emergence of Omicron was felt most in the EU market, where airports saw passenger traffic falling by 44.1 percent in December compared to 38.1 percent in November.
“After losing 1.72 billion passengers in 2020, we all had high hopes for a strong recovery in 2021. But last year proved another difficult one, as Europe’s airports ended up losing another 1.4 billion passengers compared to 2019. This means they remain under considerable stress, with systemic financial weakness across our industry,” said Olivier Jankovec, ACI Europe director general.
According to ACI, Omicron is stalling the recovery in passenger traffic, especially in the EU area.
The busiest European airports in 2021 were those of Istanbul (down by 46 percent compared to 2019), Moscow-Sheremetyevo (-38 percent), Paris-CDG (-65.6 percent), Amsterdam-Schiphol (-64.4 percent) and Moscow-Domodedovo (-11.3 percent).
Meanwhile, passenger traffic in the EU in 2021, increased by 29.2 percent compared to the previous year, but still down by 64.6 percent over 2019.
ACI analysts also found that regional airports were recovering at a faster pace than larger airports. In 2021, airports with less than 5 million passengers per year saw passengers decreasing by 53.5 percent over 2019 while airports handling more than 20 million passengers annually registered a decrease of 63.3 percent.
Regional airports that achieved the best performance in December 2021 over 2019 were those of Ajaccio (+46.4 percent), Hammerfest (+8.9 percent), Calvi (+8 percent), Mykonos (-4.3 percent), Menorca (-4.3 percent), Palermo (-5.6 percent), Ponta Delgada (-10.9 percent), Fuerteventura (-13.1 percent) and Turin (-13.6 percent).
The strongest yearly results compared to 2019 were recorded at airports in Greece (-46.8 percent), Romania (-52.7 percent), Luxembourg (-53.9 percent), Cyprus (-55.6 percent), Bulgaria (-55.9 percent). Next in line were those of Spain (-56.4 percent) and Portugal (-57.9 percent).
Meanwhile, suffering the largest losses in passenger traffic were the airports in Finland (-80.5 percent), the UK (-78.1 percent), the Czech Republic (-74.8 percent) and Ireland (-74.4 percent).
Jankovec commented: “The knee-jerk reaction of many governments who ignored the ECDC guidance and rushed to reimpose travel bans and other restrictions – including for intra-European travel – has stalled our recovery. Yet, these travel restrictions did nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, as recognized just last week by the WHO.”
Looking ahead, ACI Europe chief Jankovec said the evolution of the pandemic limits “the visibility beyond a few months, at best. For now, the impact of Omicron is still very much on us as airlines keep pulling out flights and capacity in response to weakened demand in what is already traditionally a low season. This means the first quarter will be disappointing,” he said.
Jankovec added that traffic will “hopefully” improve in the spring, depending on the pace at which travel restrictions are lifted.
ACI Europe members facilitate over 90 percent of commercial air traffic in Europe.