Airports body ACI Europe has improved its passenger outlook for 2022 and now expects a full traffic recovery to happen a year earlier than previously amid strong summer demand, but warns several factors could still derail the recovery.

In its previous outlook, published in October, ACI Europe’s base case for European airports was for passenger traffic to be 32% below pre-crisis levels this year and not to return to 2019 activity levels until 2025.

Vienna Airport December 2021

Source: Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

Vienna Airport expects strong summer demand to lift passenger numbers to 17 million this year, against 31.7 million in 2019

However, it now sees that gap closing to 22% below 2019 passenger levels this year, and a full recovery to pre-pandemic highs in 2024.

ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec says: ”At the moment, the performance of passenger traffic is trending along our high-case optimistic scenario on the back of travel restrictions lifting across many markets and strong summer pent-up demand.”

Despite this upbeat prognosis, ACI notes it comes with several “hefty warnings” that Covid, alongside geopolitical and economic risks, could impact the recovery.

”The history of the past three years suggests caution, especially as we still do not have an established playbook in Europe – let alone globally – on how to deal with future Covid-19 variants when it comes to travel,” says Jankovec.

”And beyond the immediate operational challenges from staffing issues, there is no escape from rising geopolitical tensions and stagflation fears, meaning risks for air traffic only go in one direction – down.”

Under its base case scenario for 2022, European airports would still handle 540 million fewer passengers than in 2019 – which it says results in a cumulative loss since the pandemic of 3.7 billion passengers.

”This is equivalent to the total passenger growth achieved over 36 years prior to the pandemic,” notes Jankovec.

“If the associated slump in airport revenues and continued financial weakness are factors behind current operational challenges, sharp inflationary pressures are only adding more challenges for airport investment in sustainability, digitalisation and capacity.

”It is critical that governments and regulators see beyond feuding over financial percentage points and ensure that Europe’s airports are able to generate the cash flows and restore the balance sheet strength needed to avoid an airport investment crunch.”

Airlines have hit out at plans, most notably from London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol, to increase airport charges amid debate over the funding of losses incurred during the pandemic and future capital investment. Notably, in the case of Heathrow, that has included airline criticism of the airport’s lower projections for the likely pace of traffic recovery beyond this summer.