The Case for More Space: Airlines are thrilled with how fast demand is growing. But airports struggle to keep up

You can set your watch to it. Global airline demand, measured by RPK traffic, doubles every 15 years. It did so during the past 15 years. It did so in the 15 years prior. And it’s forecast to do so again in the next 15 years. In 1960, 100m people travelled by air, according to Boeing. The number today is fast approaching four billion. In 20 years, IATA thinks, the figure will top 7b. Population growth, economic growth, deregulation, new aircraft technologies, new airline business models… all were instrumental in driving the industry’s phenomenal growth, and they likely will be for years to come. Even devastating shocks like the 9/11 attacks, the SARS epidemic and the global financial crisis always seem to prove just short-term setbacks.

But there’s a problem: a shortage of airport infrastructure to accommodate this growth. Take Europe, for example. In a recent investor presentation, easyJet stressed just how many of its key airports are congested. London Gatwick, London Luton, Berlin Schönefeld, Manchester, Paris Orly, Amsterdam, Lisbon and Barcelona, it said, were essentially full at peak times. Others like Geneva and Lyon were “constrained” if not completely full. And these are just easyJet’s big markets. London Heathrow, which easyJet doesn’t serve, is the poster child for airport congestion (which is why easyJet doesn’t serve it). Frankfurt is constrained too. Dublin, Zurich, Vienna and Warsaw are other European airports with growing congestion problems.

This is hardly just a European dilemma. In the U.S., smaller carriers regularly complain about inadequate access to constrained airports like New York LaGuardia, Washington Reagan, Newark, Los Angeles LAX and San Francisco. Even in China, the government’s willingness to prioritize infrastructure investment hasn’t prevented Beijing airport from filling up beyond capacity, resulting in several years of lost growth opportunities. Some other airports IATA classifies as currently capacity constrained: Tokyo Haneda, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Mumbai, Sydney, Melbourne, Mexico City, Bogotá and Seattle. In 2017, IATA adds, there were 189 slot-controlled airports, implying insufficient capacity to meet demand during at least some parts of the day. Five years earlier, the number was 156.

That said, many major airport projects are indeed underway, some of them massively ambit…
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