A significant milestone in world airport passenger traffic was reached in 2013, with Asia firmly consolidating its dominance in terms of passenger numbers.  

Reaching virtual parity with North America and Western Europe in 2012, Asia is now pulling well clear of those two traditionally dominant regions, establishing itself irrefutably as the largest passenger traffic market.

Confirmation of this trend is highlighted in the Arthur D. Little (ADL) World Airport Report 2014, entitled—not surprisingly—Tipping Point.  It points out that Asia now accounts for 29.1% of global airport traffic, up from 28% the previous year, while the market shares attributable to both North America (25.7%) and Western Europe (25.3%) are down on the previous year.  Both of those markets accounted for more than 26% of global airport traffic in 2012.

The report also suggests, according to ADL principal Mathieu Blondel, that “the market is back,” registering global passenger traffic growth of 4.3%.  

What is clear is that North America can now be considered a fully mature market, where growth is minimal at just 1.1%, while Western Europe is only slightly more active at 2.3%.

Airports in Eastern Europe and Russia recorded the strongest growth in passenger traffic (13.5%), followed by Asia (8.1%), the Middle East (7.6%), and Latin America and the West Indies (6.3%).  Double-digit growth in the Middle East in the previous year has been dragged down below the 10% mark, largely due to stagnation in the Iranian market, which is a major regional contributor, but flat in terms of growth.  Double-digit growth continues in the Arabian Gulf states, however. Oceania recorded growth of 2.8%, while Africa went into decline, down 0.3%, largely due to the adverse effects of socio-political unrest in Egypt and Nigeria. 

Airport growth compared to GDP

In terms of airport traffic growth compared to gross domestic product (GDP), Malaysia outperformed all other countries, with Nigeria performing worst for the second year in a row.   Historically, passenger traffic averages one or two times GDP growth, with the global average falling approximately halfway (1.4X) between the two.  

Blondel warned, however, that Malaysia’s stellar position might not be sustained in light of Malaysian Airlines’ two recent aircraft losses and the knock-on negative effect this could have on air traffic levels there. To date, neither IATA nor AAPA are seeing any downward trend, however.

Countries where airport traffic growth was twice times GDP included Peru, Colombia and Mexico in Latin America; Thailand, Taiwan and Japan in the Asia-Pacific region; the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East; and Russia, Turkey, Lithuania, Poland, the UK and France in Europe.  For the most part, Blondel pointed out, these were predominantly emerging economies, with the more mature markets languishing at or below 2X GDP.

Blondel described Colombia as “over-performing” and rapidly becoming “the third engine for growth in Latin America,” replacing Chile, which previously followed hard on the heels of Brazil and Mexico as the region’s main growth engines.  But with growth in Chile now slowing and Brazil growing just 2.3%, Mexico and Colombia are taking up the cudgel primarily as a result of positive growth in the tourism sector and increasing foreign investment, particularly from the US.

In Asia, Japan enjoyed a 5% increase in traffic—the highest growth recorded by the country in the last 10 years and driven, Blondel believes, at least in part by the increasing move toward privatization in the airports sector.  If successful, a pilot project to privatize Nagoya airport could be rolled out to cover a number of other airports.

The Netherlands again enjoyed a solid 3% increase in airport traffic despite a GDP contraction of almost 1% for the second year running. Blondel said this highlighted the importance of Amsterdam Schiphol’s major hub status, with the air transport sector “relying on the competitiveness of Schiphol to attract connecting traffic, stressing the fact that connecting traffic is one way to compensate for a small or weak economy.” 

Italy and Spain saw airport traffic decline in line with GDP, reflecting the weakness of their national economies, but also highlighting shifting tourism trends, with more tourist traffic heading for the likes of Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean than conventional tourism hotspots in the west. 

The report highlighted three countries in Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam—with booming economies where air traffic growth should be outstripping GDP, but instead is languishing below 1X GDP growth. Blondel attributes this largely to “infrastructure constraints and saturation at key gateway airports, some of which are operating at between 150% and 200% above their original design capacity.”  He said, “Airport capacity shortages in all three countries are beginning to adversely impact air traffic growth, which in turn could have a knock-on effect on future economic growth.” 

The ADL survey covers total airport traffic of approximately 6.1 billion passengers, less than 50% of which are handled by primary and secondary hub airports, with regional platforms accounting for 53.4% (up from 45% of market share in 2001).  Regional platforms have also contributed to more than 60% of total airport traffic growth between 2012 and 2013, with hubs accounting for just 38%.

Europe

Most of the traffic growth in Europe can be attributed to significant growth at airports in Russia and Turkey, supported by growth in the smaller emerging economies.  Growth in Western Europe has largely stalled, reflecting the maturity of this market.  

Other notable exceptions include London Heathrow, which managed to boost passenger traffic by 3.3% in 2013 over 2012, despite operating at a high saturation level.  This Blondel attributes largely to the use of larger aircraft increasing capacity. Amsterdam (3%) and Copenhagen (3.2%) also grew above the 2% average for European primary and secondary hubs, but were dwarfed by Istanbul (13.7%) and Moscow Sheremetyevo (11.7%), which helped to push up the region’s growth totals.

Madrid, which invested in a major new terminal in 2004, saw passenger traffic plunge 12.1% in 2013, largely due to the withdrawal of key low-cost carriers—and in particular Ryanair—in reaction to a hike in airport charges. In 2007, Madrid handled 52 million passengers, a figure that had fallen to just 39.7 million in 2013, meaning the Spanish capital gateway has lost almost 25% of its passenger traffic over the last six years.  At the same time, two key Italian gateways—Rome Fiumicino and Milan Malpensa—saw traffic declines of 2.2% and 3.1%, respectively, tracking the woes of Alitalia and the wider economy.

Of the 50.8 million passengers added at Europe’s airports in 2013, Russia (15.9 million) and Turkey (15.5 million) now account for almost 60% of the total.  The UK added a further 7.7 million passengers, making it the next largest growth market and overtaking France in terms of passenger numbers.

Just 25 airports generated 50% of total traffic in 2013, led by London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. About 400 airports—73% of Europe’s total—generated 10% of total traffic. Just nine airports (2% of the total) generated 50% of the traffic growth, with airports in Turkey and Russia leading the way, followed by Heathrow and Amsterdam. This extrapolates out to just 20 airports generating 80% of the growth, with 213 airports (46% of the total) actually registering a decrease in traffic in 2013 compared to 2012.

North America

The most striking feature about growth patterns in North America is the renaissance of Los Angeles, which last year enjoyed strong growth of 4.7% in passenger traffic compared to the North American average of just 1.1%. 

Blondel attributes this better-than-expected growth to the opening last year of the newly refurbished and expanded Tom Bradley International Terminal, plus refurbishment work on the airport’s other terminals making it more attractive and adding capacity.  

Blondel also said “among US airlines, the battle for coast-to-coast traffic is heating up, with airlines dedicating additional capacity to this sector.” 

Traffic levels at Atlanta (-1.1%), Chicago (-0.3%) and Washington (-2.8%) were all down in 2013, and Blondel conjectured that the decline at Atlanta, where capacity is not a particular issue, may be due to a general decline in hub-and-spoke traffic with more focus on point-to-point flights.  

“The US domestic market is sluggish, but US airlines are not investing in this market,” Blondel said.  “Instead, they are concentrating their investment on the higher yield international market.”

Since 2000, domestic traffic has grown by 48 million passengers or approximately 8%, from 600 million to 648 million passengers.  International traffic has added almost 95 million passengers over the same period, from 134 million in 2000 to 181 million last year, an increase of nearly 35%. However, overall traffic levels have yet to reach their 2007 peak.

2000 was also the last year that foreign airlines carried more international passengers than US carriers, uplifting 68 million passengers compared to 66 million for US carriers.  By 2013, a record total of 84 million international passengers were carried by non-US airlines, while US airlines carried a record 97 million passengers.

Since 2001, most of the growth in the US has been focused on the Eastern seaboard, with passenger numbers in the Northeast states increasing by 59.1 million during the period, and Southeast states adding 55.9 million passengers.  The Western Seaboard has averaged growth of between 10 and 20 million passengers over the period; the south has added 10.4 million passengers, while the central region has almost recovered the losses of the last two years by adding 2.5 million extra passengers.  Conversely, the Iron Belt saw passenger numbers decrease by 26.3 million over the 12-year period, only marginally outstripping the level of decline recorded in 2011 and 2012.

Latin America

Colombia’s booming traffic growth of 17% was the main driver for growth in Latin America in 2013, adding 7.8 million passengers, supported by healthy growth of 8.1% in Mexico adding a further 7.1 million passengers.  Brazil continued to grow, albeit at a slower rate of 2.7%, but overall all countries in the region were in either positive or flat territory with no actual declines recorded.

Brazil was largely unaffected by the recent global economic crisis, but is now slowing down, while Mexico was hard hit by the crisis—losing 12 million passengers in 2009, and recovering slowly over the next two years before moving back into consolidated growth in 2012.  It is now growing faster and adding more passengers than Brazil. 

In Latin America, only eight cities generated 50% of the region’s traffic growth in 2013: three cities in Colombia (adding 5.5 million passengers in 2013), three in Mexico (adding 4.5 million passengers), and one airport each in Brazil (4 million passengers) and Chile (1.1 million passengers).

Just 15 airports accounted for 50% of the region’s traffic in 2013, spearheaded by São Paulo (Brazil), Mexico City and Bogota (Colombia). Seventy-percent of the region’s airports generated just 10% of its traffic. And in terms of total traffic growth, just six airports—2%—generated 50% of the region’s growth, with São Paulo, Mexico City and Bogota the top contributors. Eighty-nine of the region’s airports, representing 34% of the total, registered a decrease in traffic in 2013.

Asia-Pacific

Growth in the Asia-Pacific region is largely being driven by China, which accounted for 52% of regional growth in 2013.  That equates to an additional 71.5 million passengers out of a regional total of 137.3 million additional passengers. However, the rate of growth has been slowing since 2010, with the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the last three years down to 10.1% from 12.3% for the period 2007-2010.

Malaysia and Thailand were the next best performers, adding 12.9 million and 12.3 million passengers, respectively, for the year. India, which in 2010 and 2011 contributed significantly to regional growth, added just 9.1 million passengers in 2013 so can no longer be considered a growth engine despite its size and population level.  However, the 2013 level of growth reflects a marked recovery (+5.9%) from the loss of 600,000 passengers from the national total in 2012 in line with a downturn in the Indian economy.  

Indonesia, which was a key growth driver in 2010 and 2011, dropped to single-digit growth (adding 9.8 million passengers) in 2012 and added just 7 million passengers in 2013. This Blondel attributes largely to the accumulating effects of infrastructure constraints and political reluctance to commit funding to address this situation. He said the same was true for the Philippines (adding just 1.2 million passengers in 2013) and Vietnam where aging airport infrastructure is putting the brakes on growth. 

Despite increasing airspace constraints, the Pearl River Delta airports continue to grow, although Hong Kong’s historical domination of the region is being increasingly challenged by growth at neighboring Shenzhen and Guangzhou (Canton) airports.  In 2013, Hong Kong handled 60 million passengers, but Guangzhou is snapping at its heels with 52 million passengers, and Shenzhen 32 with million.  While Hong Kong’s CAGR has been 5.2% since 2001, Guangzhou’s has been 11.5% over the same period and Shenzhen’s 12.6%.

Another regional trend is the increasingly fierce competition among the main ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) hubs, with Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur vying to usurp Singapore’s historical dominance in the region. Both airports are closing in on Singapore, with Bangkok handling 51 million passengers in 2013 and Kuala Lumpur handling 47 million passengers, not far off Singapore’s total of 54 million passengers. 

Blondel pointed out that Malaysia, like the Netherlands, is pinning its hopes on the transfer market for growth. Airport traffic grew almost 20% in 2013, but international tourist arrivals grew only 2.7%, with a strong element of connecting traffic. In other ASEAN countries, much of the airport traffic growth has been driven by booming tourism activity (18.8% in Thailand, 17.5% in Cambodia, 10.6% in Vietnam, 9.6% in the Philippines and 9.4% in Indonesia).  

“Instead, Kuala Lumpur is positioning itself as a strong competitor to both Singapore and Bangkok and needs to capture connecting traffic for future growth,” said Blondel. To date, that strategy has been largely successful.

Just 20 or 7% of the airports in Asia accounted for 50% of the region’s total traffic in 2013, led by Beijing (PEK), Tokyo (HND), Jakarta (CGK), and Hong Kong (HKG), with 70% of the region’s airports generating 10% of the traffic.  And 19 airports generated 50% of the total traffic growth, led by Bangkok (DMK), Kuala Lumpur (KUL), Kunming (KMG) and Guangzhou (CAN), with 49 airports (18%) registering a decrease in traffic.

Middle East 

Growth in the Middle East was almost halved in 2013, declining from double-digit growth of 14.4% in 2012 to just 7.6% a year later. This was largely due to a virtually flat Iranian airport traffic market, as well as a significant decline in Bahrain.

The relentless growth of Dubai continued unabated in 2013, with competing regional hubs—Abu Dhabi and Doha—largely failing to close the gap.  With 66.4 million passengers, Dubai now ranks higher than Paris Charles de Gaulle and is fast catching up with London Heathrow.  Doha, meanwhile, totaled 23.4 million passengers in 2013, an increase of 10%, and Abu Dhabi grew 12% to reach 16.5 million passengers.  But Dubai outstripped all other regional airports with a growth rate of 15%.

Overall, the main Arabian Peninsula airports performed well, but Bahrain saw passenger numbers plummet 13% to 7.4 million, reflecting the financial difficulties of flag carrier Gulf Air, while Tehran reported a 7% drop in passenger numbers to 12.7 million due to the toughening of sanctions in mid-2013.  

The report highlights the intense competition developing between the mega hubs of Turkey, the Arabian Gulf and Northeast Africa—a region that Arthur D. Little describes as “World Central.” This region is at an absolute crossroad between Europe and Asia as well as Africa and even the Americas, and the airports there are in a keen contest to establish themselves as the dominant transfer hub.  

Dubai is currently out on its own, but Blondel acknowledged that, if Turkey fulfills its ambitions for a major new hub airport in Istanbul, it would be best placed to optimize its geographic potential, especially in terms of tapping the European market.  Unlike the Gulf hubs, which need to use long-haul aircraft to reach Europe’s primary airports, Turkish carriers have the luxury of being able to use smaller short-haul aircraft to access smaller regional airports to feed their transfer ambitions. An Istanbul hub could therefore potentially connect feeder traffic from primary, secondary and regional European airport platforms, giving it a competitive edge over Gulf rivals.

What is clear, however, is that the so-called World Central mega hubs have been having a damaging impact on European hubs since the mid-2000s, especially as their comparative growth patterns improve.

Africa

Africa saw a small decline in airport traffic growth in 2013, largely fueled by sizeable declines in Egypt (Cairo down 6%), Nigeria (Lagos down 2.8%), and to a lesser extent Kenya (Nairobi down 6%), despite a relatively buoyant performance elsewhere in the region. 

Having seen a traffic decline in 2012, Morocco enjoyed something of a recovery last year, with both Casablanca and Marrakech airports enjoying traffic growth above 5% and 10%, respectively. Tanzania, Tunisia and Algeria also fared well, but Egypt’s Red Sea airports—Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada—saw significant drops in passenger numbers, compounding the decrease in Cairo.  South Africa also contributed to the downturn in Africa’s airport traffic, with the three main airports—Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town—wallowing in negative or flat growth territory in 2013.

Blondel pointed out two key regional shifts—one in East Africa where Addis Ababa is overtaking Nairobi and positioning itself strongly as the continental gateway hub; and the other in West Africa, where Accra (Ghana) is taking over from Abidjan (Ivory Coast) as the main business hub.

A recurring theme of this year’s ADL report is the effect of market forces on airport traffic growth.  In countries where airports and airlines have been or are in the process of being commercialized, there is greater focus on growth, which in turn attracts private investors.  So airports operating in a free market environment potentially have greater access to capital expenditure (capex) funding, enabling infrastructure development to keep pace with demand.  But where there is little growth, the appetite for investment diminishes, and the mature US and European markets have all but stalled in terms of new infrastructure development.  

As a result, competition in these regions is fierce between existing airports, with some growing quickly at the expense of others.  In Asia and Latin America, however, growth is more evenly distributed.

“Private investment will go where there is the potential for growth, so not all airports are equal in terms of attracting private funding,” Blondel said.

And he pointed out that where growth was concentrated in emerging economies, it created challenges as well as opportunities, throwing up short-term operating issues in the race to ensure infrastructure supports rather than constraints economic development.

In 2013, just 45 airports generated 50% of global traffic growth and 55 airports accounted for 50% of total worldwide passenger traffic volume.  Only six airports—Amsterdam, Dubai, Frankfurt, London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle—offer more than 80 long-haul destinations, and 26 offer between 40 and 80 long-haul destinations.