Eurocontrol: recession slows traffic at European airports

 - February 26, 2009, 5:46 AM

The economic downturn is having a profound effect on business aviation in Europe, with air traffic management agency Eurocontrol reporting a 20-percent drop in average daily flights during January compared with the same period last year. Spain and the UK, where traffic dropped by 27 and 23 percent, respectively, so far are the most serious casualties among the 27 states of the European Union. A number of business aviation airports across the region have confirmed to AIN that they have seen reduced operations since last October.

According to Eurocontrol data, business aviation traffic in the European Union was down 16 percent in December and 17 percent the previous month. Over the 12 months of 2008, there was a 3-percent decrease.

“The UK is one of the worst-hit member states at almost eight percent down on the year,” European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) president Brian Humphries told AIN. EBAA members are reporting activity levels down by 15 percent for the last three months. They do not expect much improvement until the autumn, anticipating a fall of around 10 percent for all of 2009 over 2008’s figures.

In Spain, the decrease in aircraft movements at Madrid Torrejón Airport was 25 percent in December (versus December 2007), after a 30-percent drop in November (versus November 2007). Over the whole of last year, the drop in traffic totaled 10 percent, with airports reporting about 15,300 movements. At Barcelona Sabadell Airport, the worst part of the final quarter of last year was October, with a
33-percent drop over figures for the same period in 2007. This airport has business aviation traffic but there are also some light aircraft and training operations. Over the year, the number of movements dropped 19 percent from the previous year, to 49,300 movements.

At Paris Le Bourget, monthly traffic has decreased by “12 to 15 percent since September,” according to airport manager Michel de Ronne. Over the course of last year, traffic fell by 7 percent, “which means we are back to 2006 levels,” de Ronne noted. His impression is that “many business jet travelers stopped flying when the financial crisis [really began] in September.”

However, de Ronne pointed out that the downturn has come after years of strong growth. He even expected growth to return at an annual rate of around 4 percent over the coming years. However, that trend did not begin in January, with the airport reporting a 19-percent drop in movements, to 3,972, from the same period last year.

France’s Lyon Bron seems to have bucked the trend in 2008. The number of aircraft movements in the fourth quarter was down only a bit on the same period in 2007.

According to airport manager Eric Dumas, business aviation traffic in October was steady with only a 0.3-percent increase, November traffic plummeted by 14 percent but December showed an 11-percent increase over December 2007. One possible explanation is that the snow season started earlier than usual in the nearby Alps.

Lyon Bron is a gateway for wealthy skiers. In 2008, traffic was steady at Lyon Bron, at about 7,200 movements. There has been a positive trend for business jets weighing more than 22 metric tons (48,500 pounds). For example, traffic has jumped by 39 percent for large business jets (22 to 45 tons, under the airport’s landing-fee formula). By contrast, movements involving aircraft weighing less than six tons decreased by 3 percent. For the first half of this year, Dumas predicts an overall trend “between traffic stability and minus 10 percent.”

At Nice and Cannes airports, on the French Riviera, business aviation traffic decreased by 20 percent between October and January compared with the same period a year earlier. Charter operations seem to be suffering the most, down 30 percent, airport manager Olivier Dufour told AIN. “We believe the downturn began in August last year and that the worst is over. We expect the trend to be back in the black from April,” he said.

Le Castellet Airport in southeast France experienced an 8-percent decrease in traffic during the fourth quarter of last year over the same period in 2007. Airport manager Didier Pianelli downplayed the number, explaining that such variations can be caused by weather or activity at the Paul Ricard High-Tech Test Track, on the same site.

Over the year, business aviation traffic rose by 10 percent, to about 6,700 movements. In Geneva, business aviation traffic decreased sharply–by 20 percent–in last year’s fourth quarter over the same period a year earlier. Over the whole of 2008, the number of business aircraft movements declined by 3 percent, to about 27,200 movements. However, there were 17 percent more business aviation passengers last year than in previous years. In January this year, the drop in movements was even sharper–25 percent compared with January 2008. A spokeswoman for the airport forecasts a similar trend for this year.

“We must not allow ourselves to get too depressed,” urged Humphries. The EBAA leader emphasized that the segment has been experiencing strong growth for the previous few years. In fact, at 710,000 movements, the reduced traffic in 2008 in Europe was still higher than 2006 activity levels. Moreover, according to Eurocontrol, there were 49 percent more business aviation flights in 2007 than in 2001, compared with a 19-percent increase for the rest of the traffic.

Nonetheless, early results from the 2009 AIN survey of international FBOs confirm the gloomy prognosis for this year. As of early last month, FBOs from across the continent were reporting drops in traffic ranging from around 3 to 20 percent (compared with the same period a year earlier) and there was a clear consensus that the worsening economic crisis is driving this trend. The extent of the traffic decline should be more apparent when the report on this survey is published in the May edition of AIN.    

Charles Alcock contributed to this article.