Despite a recent spate of new airport openings, the capacity crunch in western Europe looks as if it is here to stay, at least for the region's major hubs. The fact is underlined by the number of smaller, secondary airports now eagerly marketing themselves as alternatives to the overcrowded majors.

The London system, arguably Europe's most congested, is a case in point. Having struggled for years to be taken seriously, London Stansted now expects to hit its 8 million capacity limit by 2000. Over the last few months it has set in motion plans to double the terminal size and add two new satellite buildings, while applying for government permission to raise movements. If approved the expansion will take Stansted's passenger capability to the 15 million mark by 2007-8.

With Heathrow and Gatwick now effectively full, it is understandable enough that the BAA group is pushing hard for growth at its third London airport.

Stansted's independent rival, London Luton, is planning to keep pace, with its own project designed to more than double capacity to 10 million passengers by 2008. A new terminal will be built with an £85 million injection ($144 million) from a consortium including Airports Group International of the USA, which has won a 30-year contract to manage the airport. AGI plans to plough an additional £170 million into the airport.

Both Stansted and Luton have been helped in their plans to become serious scheduled airports by the emergence of the low-cost carriers, including Ryanair, Go, easyJet and Debonair, who have fought shy of the expensive hubs. Other airports across Europe, from Oslo's tiny Torp to Ireland's Shannon, are also hard at work reinventing themselves as real alternatives to the big city hubs. Charleroi has rebranded itself Brussels South and Scavda is now Stockholm South.

Expansion plans are still in train at the major hubs, but progress has at times been painfully slow. The public enquiry over Heathrow's planned fifth terminal is already the longest in UK history and T5 will not now open before 2005.

Instead developers have turned to new out-of-town sites, as two openings in October showed: Oslo's Gardermoen replaced the old city airport at Fornebu and Milan's Linate is being wound down in favour of new Malpensa.

The only other major European greenfield project due to start this century is now Athens Sparta. The next big expansion after that centres on Berlin, where a consortium led by Frankfurt Airport has now been selected to turn the old Schoenefeld into the new Berlin Brandenburg. It is due to open in in 2007, climbing to its full capacity of 20 million passengers within three years. But again the new airport comes with the closure of Berlin's existing Tegel and Tempelhof airports. Further south, Munich too is planning to expand from 18 million to 30 million by the same date, while in Italy, Rome Fiumicino is due for a major expansion, helping it keep in touch with more northerly competition.

But the industry remains sceptical over whether such programmes will be enough. New airports "are saturated the day they open" complains the International Air Transport Association. And as fast as new projects go ahead, existing capacity is coming under increasingly acute penalties from environmental pressure groups.

At Amsterdam's Schiphol airport the complaints are still coming in despite efforts to reduce local noise pollution says Alexander Zeverijn, senior corporate strategist at the airport. In October the Dutch parliament again failed to come to an agreement over the noise issue and according to Zeverijn, the Dutch Government "will stand or fall" on the issue.

The Dutch transport minister has six months to come up with a solution to parliament's demands that over the next five years, the airport will make no more noise nuisance that it does today while carrying 10 million extra passengers. Two of the options under consideration, involve taking capacity out of Amsterdam entirely, building on the water at a site on the North Sea or else the Markerwaard lake. Limits on growth herald an uncertain future for Schiphol and home carrier KLM is now eyeing up the possibilities of Malpensa, in conjunction with alliance partner Alitalia.

With Green parties now in government in many western European states, it seems that capacity problems are unlikely to diminish.

Source: Airline Business