By Olivier Jankovec, Director General, ACI EUROPE
This Spring is looking promising for many airports. This is especially the case in the EU, where the expansion of air travel keeps outperforming weaker economic growth. This builds upon last year’s trend, when Europe’s airports welcomed a record 1.82 billion passengers. Lower oil prices, the ECB’s Quantitative Easing policy and improving consumer confidence should all further support demand for air travel in the coming months. Looking back, what our traffic figures have been showing for quite some time is the undeniable central role that aviation plays within the daily lives of European citizens, businesses and economies.
Indeed this relationship between air connectivity and the economy is only getting tighter, largely due to the ever increasing interdependence between national economies on a global scale. In many emerging countries, this has led governments to consider aviation of strategic relevance within national economic development policies, and to support the sector accordingly. In Europe, aviation still has a long way to go to obtain a similar treatment from policy makers. Aviation taxes, restrictions on airport development, lack of tangible progress with the Single European Sky or the absence of public financing for aviation security are indeed all pointing in the opposite direction.
This is precisely why – in the context of the new political cycle at EU level – ACI EUROPE has shed new light on the role of air connectivity for the economy. We started last year with our Airport Industry Connectivity Report 2004-2014, which was then followed in January with the release of an independent third party study on The Economic Impact of Europe’s Airports. As you can read in this issue, this latest study provides both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the interactions between the European economy and its airports.
This work has already begun to yield results. It has indeed played an important part in convincing the European Commission (EC) that Europe needed a new Aviation Strategy – as part of its focus on restoring economic growth, creating jobs and boosting investments. While the details of this Aviation Strategy still need to be worked out, the EC has made it clear that promoting air connectivity will be a key objective. The EC has also stated that its Aviation Strategy will look at improving the global competitive position of European aviation.
An issue of particular interest to airports is the liberalisation of air traffic rights with external markets – especially with the EU’s neighbouring countries and emerging markets. This should be an essential part of the Aviation Strategy – Open Skies are crucial to develop air connectivity and to further unleash the synergies between aviation and the wider economy.
Yet over the past weeks, some airlines – both in the US and Europe – have actively campaigned to block any further opening of market access for Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. They contend that these airlines benefit from unfair subsidies from their governments and that a level playing field needs to be established. While both the transformation of global air travel and the rise of the Gulf airlines are clearly challenging the competitive position of European aviation, a protectionist response is not the way forward. European airports have been courting these airlines, with many seeing them as key to developing long-haul connectivity for their communities. Airports do not want to see their network development opportunities jeopardised by the specific interest of any airline.
Fair competition is a legitimate concern, and it needs to be addressed. But it would be an illusion to believe that the Gulf States are going to reconsider the way in which they use aviation to support their economic development and global positioning. This model is about State capitalism embracing aviation – and it rather calls for Europe to reconsider the way it treats its own aviation sector. This is possibly the most important issue that the EC’s Aviation Strategy will need to address.