While European airports today confirmed they returned to the black in 2022 for the first time in three years, pressure on future funding remains of concern amid increased debt and slower traffic growth.

At its annual meeting in Barcelona on 27 June, Airports Council International (ACI) Europe disclosed that airports in the region made a net profit of €6.4 billion ($7 billion) last year. That was despite passenger traffic remaining more than a fifth down on pre-Covid levels in Europe.

Olivier Jankovec, ACI Europe

Source: Eurocontrol

ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec, speaking at a Eurocontrol event in 2022

While it marked a welcome return to profit for European airports after €20 billion in losses accumulated during the pandemic, ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec said the financial situation remains challenging.

“For European airports it is about finally turning the corner from Covid, being back in the black, posting a net profit which is very welcome,” Jankovec said during a press conference in Barcelona. ACI says the profit was driven by airports delivering cost efficiencies and by cutting planned investments, noting capital expenditures were down €5.5 billion.

“It’s still difficult because traffic performance is very diverse and we are carrying a significant amount of debt from Covid, and that means, moving forward, a bigger part of the revenue… will have to service that debt,” he adds.

ACI Europe estimates that debt and liabilities are still €47 billion higher than before the pandemic. “That money is not available for investment. So a big worry for us is how we can get back on a financial footing that allows us to recover our full investment capacity, knowing that investment need will remain very high for airports,” says Jankovec.

He argues that today’s slower-than-historical European travel growth rates will require airports to raise charges.

”Airports today are competing with each other at a pan-European level,” Jankovec says. “Airlines are playing the airport competition supermarket game and that means there is a lot of pressure to keep the airport charges low. I think, at the same time, we are seeing the airfares reaching sky-high levels, and conversely the charges paid by the users – the airlines – still not reflecting inflation.”

ACI estimates air fares have risen by almost one-third compared to pre-pandemic prices, while airport charges are 7% higher. 

“I think there is an equation that doesn’t work any more. So we will need to increase our charges to users,” says Jankovec. “I think behind that is an adherence to the user-pays principle.”

He adds: “The mother of all challenges for European airports will be decoupling financial viability and profitability from volume growth.

“In the medium-to-long term… traffic growth will be lower compared to what we have been used to in the past, [so] it will be crucial for us to find the ability to increase our unit revenues.”