The terror incidents in and around Barcelona in mid-August left another of the region's destinations reeling from attacks targeted at locations popular with tourists.

Capacity into Spanish cities and resorts – and into other countries such as Greece, Italy, and Portugal – has grown significantly over the past few years across leisure and low-cost carriers, as travellers have shifted away from destinations in North Africa and Turkey that were perceived to be unsafe in light of security and geopolitical developments. That growth has been augmented by the general increase in air capacity across the board.

But as Spain joins the growing list of countries affected by recent terror attacks, leisure travellers are running out of destinations in the region that have been free from security and/or geopolitical uncertainties over the past couple of years.

One consequence of this is that tourists are becoming accustomed to a degree of risk.

"With the regrettable increase in terrorist incidents, the evidence shows that there is resilience in many markets with perhaps an acceptance that normal life must go on," says John Strickland, an aviation analyst at JLS Consulting.

Carl Denton, managing director of Sven Carlson Aviation Consulting, agrees that passenger attitudes are adjusting to the security environment. "While incidents in holiday resorts certainly create greater concern to travellers, I feel there is an increasing perception that, albeit very small, this is a risk in society today regardless of the destination," he says.

This reality, combined with western Europe's relatively calm geopolitical climate and recent precedents shown by FlightGlobal schedules data, suggests leisure passenger preferences and airline capacity are unlikely to fundamentally shift away from western European destinations such as Barcelona in the near term, despite recent events.

Leisure map

Strickland says many airlines in the region would welcome a longer list of leisure destinations to serve, however. "A shift in capacity would actually help a number of airlines, provided the demand is there, as the western Mediterranean has seen something of an overdose of capacity," he states. "These [North Africa and Turkey] markets continue to face more uncertainty currently than western Europe, though there is evidence of modest recovery." For that reason, he says, there is limited scope for airlines to look beyond currently saturated markets.

The terrorism impact on travel into western Europe from destinations such as the USA also appears relatively moderate. Delta Air Lines president Glen Hauenstein cited "multiple terrorist events" as partly responsible for the US carrier's weaker-than-expected mid-2016 transatlantic performance, but by July this year he was "pretty enthusiastic about how the first half of the year has shaped up relative to the capacity levels that are in the transatlantic".

Delta did cut a daily Atlanta-Brussels service after the March 2016 terror attacks in the European city, but reinstated the service a year later. It also maintained a daily service to Nice, FlightGlobal schedules data shows, despite the terror attack there. Elsewhere in Europe, over the past two years Delta has increased capacity to Paris and added Lisbon to its summer schedule. The carrier has also reintroduced a summer service to Berlin, persisting with the plan even after a terror attack in the German city just before Christmas. Throughout the period, Delta has maintained its Barcelona capacity.

Indeed, Barcelona – where before the terror attacks the president of the city's chambers of commerce had lamented the "tourist invasion" amid anti-holidaymaker protests – has been riding high in terms of traffic. In August 2014 there were 13,354 inbound flights to its main airport, El Prat. In August this year, the number was 14,639; an increase of 1,285 flights, and some 392,000 seats. That is a 17% rise in capacity in just three years.

Ryanair increased its seat capacity on inbound El Prat flights by 30% over that period, to 360,000 in August this year, while EasyJet's was up 29%, at 166,000. International capacity also rose thanks to American Airlines and Qatar Airways, among others.

While El Prat does serve leisure markets, including city visitors and those heading to nearby beach resorts, it also serves friends-and-family markets, as well as business travellers, across short- and long-haul services.

French city Nice, which suffered a terror attack that killed dozens in July last year, accommodates a similar mix of travellers to Barcelona and offers a recent precedent on how capacity into the market responded. FlightGlobal schedules data shows that seats into the city's main airport were up 5% in June this year versus June 2016, the month before the attack.

In a similar vein, seat capacity into Paris Charles de Gaulle is up 5% in October 2017 versus October 2015, just before terror attacks in the French capital left more than 100 people dead.


In Turkey's biggest city Istanbul, however, capacity was largely flat between August 2015 – when terrorism activity began intensifying in the months leading up to a failed coup the following year – and the same month this year. FlightGlobal schedules data shows local carriers have been mostly alone in driving seat growth in the city in recent months, offsetting falls from foreign airlines.

Amid global growth trends in airline capacity, Istanbul's stagnation reflects how a toxic combination of terror attacks and geopolitical uncertainties will affect more than just leisure capacity. But Turkey also highlights how leisure-focused airports are much more vulnerable to those factors.

Seats into Turkey's Dalaman airport were down 30% in August this year, at 270,000, versus August 2015 when there were 385,000. Carriers including EasyJet, Jet2, Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomson Airways removed capacity over the period. There are similar, if less dramatic, stories at Turkey's Antalya and Bodrum airports, which both have a significant leisure focus. Seat capacity was down 7% and 11%, respectively, over the same period.

Across those Turkish airports, moves to offset the decline in traffic were almost exclusively from local operators such as Pegasus, SunExpress and Turkish Airlines.

There are tentative signs of some capacity regrowth to Turkey. That comeback would be welcome news for carriers such as German-Turkish leisure joint venture SunExpress, which said towards the end of last year that it was looking to destinations beyond its traditional Turkish focus to countries such as Bulgaria because of weaker demand.

There are also signs that North African destinations might be on the verge of a partial comeback.

Thomas Cook revealed in mid-August its plan to start offering flights to Tunisia again from early 2018 after the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office softened guidance on travel to the North African country, two years after a terror attack at a beach resort at Sousse left 38 people dead.

The UK tour operator's plans cover a "few resorts, mainly near to Hammamet, and only eight hotels", it said.

That reluctance to make a large-scale return to Tunisia is reflected in comments made to FlightGlobal by Monarch Airlines chief executive Andrew Swaffield at the Paris air show in June. "I'm optimistic about Turkey; I'm not optimistic about Tunisia," he said, suggesting that the North African nation is a harder sell to tourists because the terror attack there targeted a beach resort.

FlightGlobal schedules data shows how Tunisia's tourism market has been devastated by that attack in 2015.

At Enfidha-Hammamet International airport, which handles much of the country's leisure traffic, inbound seat capacity was down 86% in June this year, at just under 19,000, versus June 2015 when there were 130,000. Capacity was taken out by Thomas Cook, Thomson, Jetairfly and local carrier Nouvelair, among others. Seat capacity at the country's main airport in Tunis, however, is up 10% over the same period, partly driven by Nouvelair switching capacity on to scheduled routes from the facility.

Egypt offers another example of mixed fortunes depending on what passenger types an airport serves. There were 51% fewer seats on flights into the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in August this year – at 84,000 – than there were in August 2015. The biggest falls in capacity come from UK carriers Monarch and Thomson, and local scheduled operator EgyptAir. Over the same period, seat capacity into Egypt's capital, Cairo, with its mix of passenger types, was up 5%.

Sharm was once a popular destination for travellers from western Europe in particular, but its traffic fell dramatically following the loss of a MetroJet Airbus A321 shortly after departure from the resort's airport in October 2015. Since then the UK government has advised against travel through the airport, although others have relented. At the same time, the wider country has faced terrorist incidents and geopolitical uncertainties, hitting leisure capacity at other cities and resorts.

Some improvement has been seen in capacity to Sharm and to fellow leisure-focused airport Hurghada. At both locations, the comeback is being largely driven by carriers such as Germania, Pegasus and Turkish Airlines, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Denton suggests that even though there are signs of destinations making a comeback, there are still roadblocks for airlines when shifting capacity back. "Leisure carriers were also operating to Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia so can relatively easily move back," he says. "But many have weak or almost nonexistent tour operators to support the packaging of this volume, and as such will need to rely heavily on third-party distributors of their seat product." That consideration might explain why Thomas Cook, for example, has shifted a significant amount of its Turkish capacity from chartered to scheduled services over the past couple of years, as FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Denton also recognises that there is more at stake financially for the region's airlines if they get decisions wrong when shifting capacity from western European markets to North Africa and Turkey. "Sector lengths are higher so the risks are greater if the yields cannot be sustained," he says.

Even tentative moves towards a wider spread of leisure destinations, however, would be welcome relief for many leisure-focused airlines in the region that have faced falling fares amid intense competition on routes to destinations such as Croatia, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, whether for package-style holidays or shorter breaks.


Monarch bemoaned this increased competition in an August financial report, citing how other carriers had shifted capacity into its "core markets", leaving them "highly disrupted and increasingly [suffering] from increased capacity".

FlightGlobal schedules data illustrates just how saturated these markets have become over a short period of time.

There were 1,789 more flights into the Palma de Mallorca in August this year compared with the same month in 2014, before many of the region's recent round of terror and geopolitical events took place. That equates to 255,000 more seats on inbound flights, or a 14% rise in capacity in three years, to 2.1 million. Air Europa, EasyJet, Norwegian, Ryanair and Thomas Cook Airlines – a mixture of leisure and low-cost operators – are among the carriers with the most significant increases.

Over the same period, Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands had a 20% increase in flights and a 30% rise in seats, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Faro in Portugal, meanwhile, had a 34% rise in seat capacity between August 2014 and the same month this year, with EasyJet, Jet2, Ryanair, Thomson and Transavia at the centre of this growth.

Alongside Spain, Greece has been another beneficiary of recent leisure traffic growth. Seat capacity at Athens was up 39% in August 2017 versus August 2014, at 1.5 million. Among the country's resort airports, Crete had a rise of 31%, Kos a rise of 8% and Santorini a rise of 35% in inbound seat capacity over the same period, FlightGlobal schedules data shows. Niki, Norwegian, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson, TUIfly, Volotea and local carriers Sky Express and Olympic Air were among those driving this growth.

In Italy, meanwhile, there were some 85,700 more seats on flights into city-break favourite Venice's main airport in August this year than there were in August 2014, a rise of 15%, FlightGlobal schedules data shows. The number of inbound flights rose from 3,636 to 4,169 over that period. The carriers driving growth to Venice include EasyJet, which almost doubled its monthly flights to 833, while British Airways and Volotea also added a significant number of inbound seats.

Previously low-profile destinations such as Bulgaria have also benefited from increased leisure capacity in recent years. The country's Varna airport, which serves Black Sea resorts, had a 97% rise in inbound seats in August 2017, when there were just under 126,000, versus the same month in 2014. Wizz Air and SunExpress are among the carriers that added significant capacity. Burgas airport, which serves the same area, had a 57% rise in seats over the same period, to 218,000, partly driven by Czech operator Smartwings.


Denton cautions that these "new" destinations have their limitations in terms of how much seat capacity they can absorb. "Markets such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Macedonia have benefited from [the move away from saturated markets in Spain and Portugal] but [a lack of] quality bed-stock in these markets do not allow for significant growth opportunities in the short term," he states.

He also suggests carriers will always see an advantage in the fundamentals of serving western European destinations from countries with high outbound leisure markets such as Germany and the UK. "Operational costs due in general to shorter sector lengths make destinations such as Spain and Portugal, linked to high passenger volumes, an attractive proposition," he says.

Strickland says that, whatever happens next, and even in the high-demand western European markets, "airlines cannot be complacent and will watch booking and revenue trends closely".

Recent experience shows that airline capacity and leisure demand can be resilient – and are likely to be in the case of Barcelona. But both can falter quickly when terror concerns combine with significant geopolitical uncertainties within a country.

It can then take a long time for those destinations to win back confidence from airlines and passengers alike, particularly in places where leisure markets dominate inbound traffic.

Source: Cirium Dashboard