Can Europe cope with the unstoppable rise in air travel?

It has been just over a century since the Wright brothers made mankind’s first controlled flight, but since then, air travel has grown unstoppably. Last year, four billion passengers took scheduled flights.

That is obviously a huge jump since the Wright brothers in 1906. It is also a sharp rise on a shorter scale: the figure was just 300 million in 1970. And the numbers keep climbing at the same rapid pace. But is there a ceiling to air travel? Can the sector – in particular, the airports – cope with the demand?

These are questions that the airline industry and politicians are still trying to answer. They can see that our airports are struggling to manage the capacity. Last June, the British government gave the go-ahead for the construction of a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport (Europe’s busiest) after a long debate that even considered building a new airport on an island in the Thames river.

In need for more capacity

The trade body Airports Council International (ACI) predicts an airport capacity crunch, warning of “unprecedented levels of congestion and disruptions.” Even the gap in traffic growth caused by the 2008 financial crisis and consequent economic downturn – as well as security constraints after the September 11 attacks – has not slowed the growth.

Europe’s air traffic agency Eurocontrol is particularly concerned about the potential shortfall. It said in June that air travel will rise by an average 1.9 per cent per year over the next two decades, which would add up to a 53 per cent increase in flights by 2040. But that means Europe’s airports will not have enough capacity for approximately 1.5 million flights or 160 million passengers by 2040.

Part of the problem is simply space. Most European cities with an airport have little room to expand – and the idea of a wholly new airport, like the London island proposal, is often too radical and costly. Apart from Turkey’s new Istanbul airport, no serious new airports have been built in Europe over the last 15 years, nor have there been major runways. The infrastructure is mainly what was there 20 years ago.

Istanbul Airport

So, how can we deal with this surge? One obvious move is to make the most efficient use of airport assets. It would mean more intermodal transport, better connectivity, more efficient use of secondary hubs and small airports, more efficient aircrafts and optimisation of processes. That may also mean adapting the decades-old EU Regulation on airport slots, which is based on IATA’s World Slot Scheduling Guidelines (WSSG).

But perhaps most important, it means recognizing the political implications of decisions about airports. They need to be part of an integrated European aviation strategy, taking account of economic, environmental and social issues as well as jobs creation. Air transport can no longer be treated in isolation. And with the air traffic potentially reaching a crunch point, everyone needs to engage in the upcoming debates on airports and flight capacity.