Airport traffic grew at a dizzy rate last year, as is clear from analysis of this year's top 100 rankings, but the issues of congestion and economic downturn continue to loom

On the face of it, the world's airports could hardly have wished for better performance last year. Traffic levels hit new records and growth was back at the buoyant rates that it has not seen for years. However, there are clouds on the horizon. With all the economic signposts pointing south, it is doubtful that traffic will match the same dizzy heights this year. Also, the problem of congestion continues to rear its head, at least in the mature markets of North America and Europe.

First the good news. Preliminary results from the Airports Council International (ACI) show both passenger and freight growth pushing along at a heady 5.8%in 2000. The extent of the boom is clear from a glance across the ranking of the top 100 world airports. Almost 20% of them posted double digit growth in passenger traffic and only five noted a decline.

But there are some interesting comparisons between these leaders and laggards. Take the fortunes of Atlanta Hartsfield and Chicago O'Hare. Having captured the world lead from O'Hare in 1998, Atlanta has since consolidated its place at the top of the passenger table. Last year it set a new benchmark, passing the 80 million passenger mark. If it manages to sustain its current 3% annual growth, Atlanta would hit the 100 million barrier before the end of the decade.

At the same time, O'Hare has been suffering from capacity limitations. American Airlines last year went so far as to isolate Chicago from the rest of its system as delays got out of control. No surprise that O'Hare was among those posting a decline. And if Los Angeles continues its steady progress, mighty O'Hare could drop another place in the rankings. Midway, Chicago's second airport already appears to have benefited, with traffic soaring by 15%.

Airport bosses mostly say they prefer to concentrate on the things that matter - like keeping customers happy - rather than on their place in the rankings. However, this shift in the balance of power between the US giants graphically illustrates the difference between hubs where there is room to grow, and those where the real estate has run out.

Despite these warning notes, North America still managed a respectable 3.9%rise in passenger traffic last year, even if aircraft movements fell. But the real action came in Asia-Pacific, where passenger numbers topped the half billion mark and in Europe which is now set to break the billion barrier this year.

Industry concern is not presently about records, however, but how deep the downturn this year will be. ACI says it is not sounding warning bells just yet, noting that different regions are at different stages in their individual cycles, but cargo, one of the "most effective barometers of economic activity" has been hit. Several of the world's busiest international cargo airports have seen growth stagnate and begin to fall in early 2001.

There is guarded optimism, however, that the drop will not be too steep. Todd Whitestone, an airport analyst with Standard & Poor's New York office, expects growth at North American airports to moderate, but not slow completely. "The outlook is not as good as the economy becomes weaker towards the second half 2001, but in the long term we will still see increasing growth." Passenger growth could well be in the 2% range this year, half of that seen in 2000, he says.

A slight slowdown in traffic growth might even be a blessing in disguise for those US hubs undertaking major airport upgrades, providing some relief during the turmoil of operating a terminal at the same time as it is being expanded, notes Adam Whiteman of Moody's Investors Service.

ACI Europe too is hopeful that the region's airports will sustain reasonable growth. After a spell of growth peaking at above 7%, the association expects traffic growth in the region to slow only slightly to 5-6%. For the first three months of this year, passenger traffic grew 4.8% and cargo was unchanged.

Europe's hubs again took the top two slots for growth within the top 100 passenger ranking. London Stansted's phenomenal rise, built on the back of low-cost carriers, saw growth of over 25%. Milan Malpensa joined it at the top of the growth stakes despite the frustrations which have stood in the way of it realising full hub potential - including the lingering European service out of the old Linate airport which it should largely have supplanted by now.

Of the world's major cities, London remains the largest with 108 million passengers through its system of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Elsewhere in Europe, Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) soared by a robust 11.6% following positive moves by Air France and SkyTeam, although Orly continued to struggle. Frankfurt and Lufthansa will be hoping that approval for an extra runway will come sooner rather than later to enable the German hub to sustain its recent 7% growth.

Most major Asian hubs continued their strong recovery from the 1997 recession. A notable performer with a 19% traffic increase was China's Beijing Capital airport, taking full advantage of its new $1 billion terminal opened in late 1999. Seoul Incheon airport opened too late to affect the rankings but has now taken over international flights from Kimpo, previously South Korea's major gateway.

Frequency data

It is worth noting another trend among the top 100 passenger airports which emerges from the OAGdata, which is based on schedules filed for the month of May 2001. That seems to confirm that overall growth is coming from frequencies (up by 3.4%) rather than any increase in aircraft seating size (virtually unchanged).

Admittedly these are only rough calculations, but they do serve to illustrate the trends. American Airlines' decision to strip seats out of its fleet for example, shows through in the Dallas/Fort Worth figures, while capacities have tended to continue rising at the more congested hubs such as Heathrow or Tokyo Haneda. By contrast the RJ has brought sizes down to 80-seats or less per aircraft at Cincinnati and Washington Dulles.

There has also been an attempt this year to show how services split by region. The distinction has been made between seats offered on domestic services and those at the "intra-regional" or international level. In particular, that allows a distinction in Europe between regional flying and true intercontinental services. Perhaps one day, flying within the European single market should even be seen as domestic.

Source: Airline Business