Airports: the future’s bright

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Growth slowed from the high point of 2004, but solid traffic rises were almost universal among the world’s top airports last year, with particularly impressive performers seen in Brazil, China and India

One city had not one but two appearances among the world’s five fastest growing airports in 2005. Remarkable traffic growth of 26% at São Paulo’s predominantly domestic downtown Congonhas airport was almost matched by the 21.5% rise at international gateway Guarulhos.

Such phenomenal increases are driven by the extraordinary growth of sprawling São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis and one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of over 18 million. It is a beehive of activity that low-cost carrier Gol and resurgent TAM are cashing in on.

Overall, the world’s airports tracked back from close to 11% growth in 2004 to just over 6% last year. This slowing was expected after the robust recovery seen in 2004 but still represents a healthy rise. Total passenger numbers exceeded the 4 billion mark. International passenger numbers grew a little faster at 8%. The busiest airport among the world’s top 30 was Dubai in terms of international passenger growth with close to a 16% hike in 2005.

None can match São Paulo’s growth story but plenty of other airports in the Airline Business Top 100 ranking, which is based upon preliminary data from Airports Council International, demonstrate strong results. New services introduced by low-cost players and by flag carriers spurred by a rapidly liberalising marketplace mean that India’s Delhi and Mumbai airports coped with significant traffic boosts last year.

Chinese airports too continue their strong performance, albeit at slightly more modest rates compared with the booming traffic levels of 2003. Beijing Capital flew past the 40 million passenger mark in 2005, leapfrogging Hong Kong and Bangkok to become the second largest airport in Asia. It has reached number 14 in the world rankings and if it achieves a similar growth rate this year it will break into the top 10, overtaking gateways like Amsterdam Schiphol, Madrid and Denver.

Last year saw a significant shift in the balance of power in Russia with Moscow Domodedevo overtaking Sheremetyevo for the first time. “It is the start of a new era for the Russian airport industry,” says the airport. It welcomed Thai International, Iberia and China Eastern in 2005, as well as several Russian and CIS airlines, while Singapore Airlines arrived in March this year. The airport is investing $300 million over the next two years to boost capacity to 18 million passengers to keep up with demand.

Several US airports took traffic hits last year. The bankruptcy of ATA Airlines in October 2004 caused the carrier, which in 2003 was the market leader at Chicago Midway, to significantly reduce services at the downtown airport. Meanwhile, cutbacks by Delta and Continental Airlines at Baltimore/Washington International, and low-cost competition at Washington Dulles, hit this East Coast airport.

Another US hub that has seen traffic dip is struggling Dallas/Ft Worth. In fact it is the only airport in the top 50 to report a fall in traffic last year. It has still not replaced Delta, which pulled back its DFW hub in late 2004. The airport recently approved a new $20 million incentive package to try and tempt more international services. ■

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