Eurocontrol has maintained its outlook that flight movements in Europe will recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2025, but it has issued a stark warning that the growth likely will slow or even stagnate afterward. “Users of the forecasts are strongly advised to use the forecast range. Moreover, uncertainties surrounding further deterioration of the economy, possible escalation of the geopolitical tensions, or other unpredictable events may have a negative impact on this forecast,” the Brussels-based intergovernmental organization noted on Monday as it released its seven-year outlook covering 2023 to 2029.
The forecast projects that the number of flights will grow on average only 1.5 percent per year after 2025 under its so-called “base” forecast, which specifies a 1.7 percent year-over-year increase in 2026, 1.4 percent in 2027, 1.5 percent in 2028, and 0.9 percent in 2029. Its previous seven-year forecast, published in October last year, still projected a 2.2 percent year-over-year growth rate in 2026, and 2 percent in 2027 and 2028. Under Eurocontrol’s new “low” forecast, annual growth of flight movements in Europe will stagnate from 2025 onwards, with a 0.1 percent decline in 2026, a 0.2 percent decline in 2027, and a 0.3 percent decline in 2029. Only 2028 will see growth, at 0.2 percent. The low scenario in Eurocontrol’s October forecast still projected an annual growth rate of 1.2 to 1.3 percent for 2026, 2027, and 2028.
Eurocontrol attributes its downward revision to the “greater uncertainties” within the seven-year horizon which include higher inflation, pressure on oil prices and the lack of available refining capacity, the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the economy, and rising environmental concerns.
Pressure from environmental groups and society already has eroded domestic flows in several European countries, according to Eurocontrol data, even though most legislative targets set under the EU’s Green Deal haven’t gone into force. The targets call for climate neutrality in the EU by 2050 and an intermediate target of at least a 55 percent net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Several governments are actively promoting, or even imposing, a shift from air to rail, and concerns about noise pollution from aircraft have prompted the Dutch government to cap the number of flight movements at Amsterdam Airport.
Speaking at the Airlines for Europe Summit in Brussels on March 29, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr warned that the European airline industry might lose its competitiveness against non-EU carriers. “It is cheaper to bypass environmental reduction ideas if you hop outside of Europe,” he remarked.
A study released last month by SEO Amsterdam Economics revealed that the cost to reach net-zero aircraft emissions for European aviation by 2050 will amount to €820 billion ($894 billion). An earlier analysis by the Dutch research institution showed that the additional cost and resulting ticket price increases from Fit for 55 policies could lead to an 8.4 percent decline in overall passenger volumes—around 75 million—compared with a no-policy scenario by 2030.
For the shorter term, Eurocontrol has become more optimistic than over the past six months due to what it describes as “the continuation of vivid pent-up demand” with solid bookings and strong tourist flows in Southern Europe. It “slightly” revised upwards the flight forecast for 2023 and 2024, though it maintained its October 2022 outlook that it will take until 2025 to fully recover to levels last seen in 2019, when 11.1 million flights took place in European airspace.
With 9.2 million flights last year, activity recovered to 83 percent of 2019 levels. Low-cost carriers outperformed mainline and regional sectors, closing 2022 with a market share of 32.3 percent, just behind mainline carriers (32.4 percent), the Eurocontrol analysis shows. Europe’s largest low-cost airline, Ryanair, on Monday said it carried a record 168.6 million passengers in the fiscal year ending March 31, up from its previous record of 148.6 million in the fiscal year through March 2020.
After increased demand during the pandemic, the market share of the all-cargo segment reverted to a pre-Covid share of 4.2 percent in 2022. “Fall in cargo capacity caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now strongly impacting this segment,” Eurocontrol noted.
Eurocontrol also updated its forecast on the expected reopening of Russian and Ukrainian airspace and said it now assumes that the countries’ airspace will remain closed until the end of 2029, one year longer than it previously projected.