First came decline, then recovery, as passengers flock back to the world's airports, with Asia leading the way

Chris Jasper/LONDON

If the world airport sector was dominated by an Asia-led decline in 1998, 1999 marked a return to form for the industry - and Asia showed the way. Not only have key East Asian airports recovered the ground lost in 1998 in the wake of the region's financial shock, but leading terminals enjoyed passenger and cargo flows higher than those of 1997, which had been a previous high-water mark.

Asia's performance suggests that the region has not merely recaptured the business lost because of its financial crisis, but is set fair on the upward curve envisaged before that crisis set in. The distinction is important, in that many Asian cities have either built or are committed to building brand-new or massively expanded airports to accommodate the expected boom. Although the Asian miracle may not exactly be back on track, the continent's new airports seem unlikely to prove white elephants.

Results published by Airports Council International (ACI), which has a membership covering more than 1,400 airports in 162 countries, show that most world regions fared well or very well in 1999, and across all parameters. The survey of 600 major airports highlights just one negative trend, with Latin America suffering a slight decline (0.9%) in passenger numbers. The same continent also produced only sluggish growth in cargo volumes.

Passenger numbers worldwide rose almost 5%, cargo tonnage by more than 6%, and aircraft movements by 3.5%. ACI says the results testify to "healthy growth characterised by a strong comeback of the Asia-Pacific region". Asia's comeback was most manifest in its air cargo market, which suffered most during the decline, but where tonnage rose by 13% in 1999. Hong Kong posted the most spectacular improvement among major cargo gateways, with a 20%-plus rise in volumes making it the second largest freight airport in the world (after FedEx hub Memphis) as the new Chek Lap Kok Airport enjoyed its first full year of operations.

East Asian success stories

Asia's other big cargo achievers were Tokyo's Narita and Haneda airports, Seoul, Taipei, Osaka and Bangkok, all recording double-digit year-on-year growth, and all posting tonnage figures well in excess of pre-decline highs attained in 1997 on the back of an earlier double-digit growth spurt. Shanghai was a case apart, with freight up 36% and further growth likely with the city's Pudong Airport open. Major airport projects are also under way in Taipei, Inchon (serving Seoul) and Bangkok.

Asian passenger gains mirrored cargo growth, but lagged some way behind. Seoul reported a rise of more than 13% in passengers carried, to more than 33 million, but has not yet matched 1997's total of nearly 37 million. Regionally, Asian passenger performance was outshone by Africa (up 11%) and the Middle East and Europe, where expanding Paris Charles de Gaulle saw growth of 13% (cargo having risen by 22%). Growth at CDG contrasted markedly with slot-constrained London Heathrow, which it overtook in terms of movements. As a "system", London's three BAA-owned airports - Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted - grew collectively far faster than Heathrow alone, with Stansted's booming low-cost business the biggest driver. At Italy's "new" Milan Malpensa, passengers increased by 180% and cargo by 47%, while downgraded Linate saw falls of 52% and 47% as traffic switched airports.

In the mature North American market, passengers and cargo increased at a modest 4%, with Atlanta Hartsfield handling almost 78 million people and remaining the world's busiest passenger airport, ahead of Chicago O'Hare, which it overtook last year. The Delta Air Lines hub has also edged ahead of O'Hare in terms of aircraft movements, recording a world high of more than 900,000 passengers.

Source: Flight International