The rapid growth in air traffic across western Europe is increasing capacity pressure on infrastructure, creating expectations that the region risks reaching bursting point in a few years.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary recently said, for example, that the Irish carrier was being hamstrung in its efforts to boost services in Germany by the “huge pressure” on airport capacity at peak times. He also accused Lufthansa Group airlines of “bed-blocking” slots at attractive times during the daily cycle.

Piecemeal solutions to capacity constraints have relieved the situation to an extent, but projects that would make a significant difference – specifically new airports and expansion works – are tending to expose the glacial pace of government and regulator action. In some cases, this means new facilities are in danger of being insufficient before they even open.

Further complicating the picture are the intransigent agendas of entrenched network carriers versus other operators as they grapple over who gets the rights to the best slots.

Stakeholders are also having to plan infrastructure at a time when governments and regulators are more mindful than ever about the environmental impact of aviation, leading to the imposition of restrictions on available slots and night flying, for example.

While such headaches are not unique to Europe, figures from IATA, released in February, show the region accounts for more than half of the world’s slot-co-ordinated airports, where slots are agreed and arranged in advance of travel seasons in a bid to match demand to capacity and satisfy airline preferences for timing – to make connections, for example. For the summer 2018 season, 104 airports in Europe are level-three slot co-ordinated – applied to the busiest airports with high demand throughout the day – while 76 operate under level-two control, which suggests they are near capacity at some points during the day.

That strategy, though, is not enough. “To say [slot] co-ordination is a short-term solution to a lack of infrastructure is no longer realistic,” IATA’s head of worldwide airport slots, Lara Maughan, said at the end of last year. “Slot co-ordination is more and more a staple in an industry where capacity is not keeping pace with demand.”

Amsterdam Schiphol airport offers an example of the multifaceted challenges at Europe’s busiest airports – in this case exacerbated by the limits placed on traffic by strict noise and environmental requirements.


KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers earlier this year bemoaned the proportion of slots given to low-cost carriers at Schiphol, claiming this was hindering his carrier’s growth ambitions.

Elbers will be hoping that the opening of Lelystad airport as a second facility in Amsterdam – scheduled in two years – will help relieve that pressure.

Plans to open Lelystad to commercial traffic were recently pushed back a year to 2020, in order to assuage residents’ concerns.

The decision follows a consultation period with residents, administrators and users of the airspace. “The design routes were unexpected for many people before the summer, and errors in the noise calculations damaged confidence,” the infrastructure ministry says.

Royal Schiphol Group chief executive Jos Nijhuis expresses his disappointment: “The Dutch aviation sector now has to wait even longer for a political and social decision made 10 years ago to be implemented. I find that [situation] disappointing.” It remains to be seen how keen carriers will be to relinquish slots at Schiphol in favour of Lelystad when the latter finally opens.

Elsewhere in Europe, plans to tackle infrastructure constraints are moving at a snail’s pace – London Heathrow’s proposed third runway being a case in point.

While the UK government continues to favour Heathrow as the location for its capital city’s new capacity, there is still a long way to go before ground is broken. Indeed, IAG chief executive Willie Walsh recently put the odds of the project actually happening at 50:50.

The desperate need for slots in London led Walsh to highlight the possibility that Gatwick airport could use its emergency runway to boost its capacity.

Speaking before the UK parliamentary transport select committee in February, Walsh noted that the UK airport had “talked about extending their capacity by using their emergency runway” and added: “I certainly wouldn’t rule that out.”

Gatwick has one operational runway, but also has a second parallel runway that is used as a taxiway.

A parliamentary committee report warned in March, meanwhile, that the government must make a number of changes to the policy framework it intends to use to approve the expansion of Heathrow in order to “minimise any chance of a successful legal challenge” against the project.

The report by the transport select committee urges UK parliamentarians to approve the government’s Airports National Policy Statement when it comes up for vote, but only once a number of concerns have been addressed.

The Civil Aviation Authority should test at an “appropriately early stage” whether the expansion of Heathrow is “affordable and financeable”, the report recommends.

“Such a test should offer an opportunity to halt the planning process if it is evident that the proposed scheme has no realistic prospect of being built,” it states.

Should the project go ahead, the sheer demand for future slots is already a cause for concern among incumbent operators.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Craig Kreeger recently urged the UK government to establish a new “independent process” to distribute slots at an expanded Heathrow, in order to create a “viable, vibrant marketplace”.

Speaking in mid-March, Kreeger said applying the current IATA slot regime in force at the airport to an expanded Heathrow would create a “bias” in favour of new entrants. Airlines that are not already flying to the London hub would be given “priority for new slots, relative to existing providers”, he suggests.

Kreeger argues that, as slots not taken up by newcomers would be allocated to incumbents based on their current shares of capacity at the airport, the process would “effectively limit” most airlines to obtaining around 4% of new slots each. The exception to this would be the “group of carriers” that controls 55% of slot capacity at Heathrow, he says, alluding to IAG.

Meanwhile, even when a new facility has been built, there is no guarantee that it will come into service, as demonstrated by Berlin’s recent woes.


After reviewing progress on the long-delayed Berlin Brandenburg airport, its operator said at the end of last year that it had approved a management report commissioning the opening of the facility for October 2020.

“There is consensus that a responsible and valid assessment is now available, which provides a realistic basis for further work until commissioning,” it says.

Brandenburg was developed to replace the city’s Tegel and Schönefeld airports, but the project has been plagued by delays. Many stakeholders now suggest the new facility might not be fit for purpose.

According to the Irish Times, Thorsten Dirks, a Lufthansa board member and head of its Eurowings budget subsidiary, told a closed-door event in Bavaria recently: “My prognosis: [Brandenburg airport] will be torn down and built anew.”

For now, the German capital continues to be served by two ageing facilities.

At Frankfurt Main at least, the country is seeing some progress towards infrastructure improvements, with a new Terminal 3 slated for opening in 2023.

Elsewhere in western Europe, Vienna airport’s operator is analysing a March legal ruling giving the go-ahead to construct a third runway, after tighter environmental conditions were imposed.

While Flughafen Wien says the ruling is “positive”, it will only commit to construction when it has “legal certainty” over the scheme.

Meanwhile, Portugal’s government has outlined plans to turn Montijo air base into a second international airport serving the capital, Lisbon. The government has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Portuguese airports operator ANA and its owner Vinci Airports to develop the facility, which lies to the southeast of the city.

Environmental studies are due to be completed by mid-2018. The government says Montijo needs to be developed to ease pressure on Lisbon’s existing Portela airport.

Whatever the success or otherwise of several projects under way in western Europe, the pressure for action is growing greater by the day as more and more aircraft join the region’s fleet. As recent experience shows, there are unlikely to be any quick wins.

Source: Flight International