Julian Moxon/BRUSSELS


European airlines remained profitable last year and ordered record numbers of aircraft, but it was a "black" year for punctuality, according to the Association of European Airlines (AEA)

Operating profits, at $1.94 billion, were $400 million lower than for the previous year. Although 1997 figures were a record, much of the profit resulted from a 30% "windfall" drop in fuel prices to a 25-year low. In its annual review of the industry, the AEA blames lower load factors on the profits drop, but adds that this was balanced partly by slightly higher yields, lower costs and a small reduction in the interest burden. It was the fourth consecutive year of profits.

Growth remained strong, at 7.5%, although it was significantly lower than the 11% figure for 1997. Traffic on Asia-Pacific routes grew by only 3.8% - a figure far below the 10% average for the previous five years. The AEA says the fall was attributed largely to the "meltdown" in the South Korean and Indonesian markets, where traffic fell by 30%.

AEA airlines ordered 334 new aircraft, a huge increase on the 1997 figure of 128. Only 76 of these were widebodies and, of those, 11 were cargo aircraft. For the first time since the Boeing 747 was introduced there were no orders for that type.

Airbus dominated the orderbook, selling 230 aircraft against Boeing's 65, its single-aisle range accounting for 189 aircraft against just 22 for Boeing's New Generation 737. Airbus holds 64% of the order backlog for AEA airlines, although Boeing still accounts for 47% of the current fleet.

Cargo was virtually stagnant, increasing by just 0.3%- the lowest figure since 1991 - and reflecting downturns in the Japanese and Hong Kong markets.

Delays to European departures almost reached the record level set in 1989, with 22.8% of all intra-European departures delayed by more than 15min. It adds that June and September "were the worst months on record".

Airports and air traffic control contributed 18% to the overall figure in the third quarter of last year (figures for the fourth quarter are not yet available) and are set to increase by a further 20% because of the crisis in Kosovo. A source at Eurocontrol says that the situation "is likely to continue for at least three years", while new measures to increase capacity, such as reduced vertical separation minima, take effect.

AEA secretary-general Karl-Heinz Neumeister criticises the "total lack of a chain of command" in the air traffic management system, citing Eurocontrol's lack of a decision making mandate and the European Civil Aviation Conference as having "no teeth".

Source: Flight International