Airports Council International (ACI) Europe has warned that the future of regional air connectivity remains at risk. The aviation trade body is calling for a more supportive EU policy framework.

Around 1.72 billion passengers were lost across the European airport network last year as a result of the global pandemic. More than 836 million (49%) were lost by regional airports – with smaller ones accounting to more than half of that loss (437 million). Most of the 193 European airports currently facing insolvency are regional airports.

Regional airports and especially those dependent on international air connectivity and with few domestic routes, such as Cork Airport in Ireland, have seen their air connectivity decimated over the last 12 months. Cork Airport has gone from more than 50 routes with multiple weekly frequencies in 2020 to one single air route currently being operated with just three weekly frequencies. Overall, close to 7,000 air routes have been lost across the European airport network.

“The cliff-edge fall in air connectivity we have experienced at Cork Airport illustrates what’s happened to regional airports across Europe,” said Nial MacCarthy, Chairman of ACI Europe’s Regional Airports Forum and Managing Director of Cork Airport. “The vaccine rollout accompanied by vaccine and testing certificates should provide the conditions for airports – and the whole travel and tourism sector – to finally get back on our feet. But make no mistake, rebuilding our route networks will take a number of years – and the speed at which this will happen will directly impact the recovery of local economies and jobs in our communities. With every +10% gain in direct air connectivity yielding a 0.5% increase in GDP, the case for the EU to accelerate greater policy and financial support for airports and air connectivity is an economic no-brainer.”

MacCarthy highlighted the need to enable Air Connectivity Restart Schemes not just throughout 2021, but realistically for the next three years. These schemes, he said, will enable states to provide a direct per passenger subsidy to restart previously operated air routes or to support the launch of new ones and will play a vital role in supporting the revival of the sector and the local economies it serves.

Adding that beyond the recovery, regional airports will be facing a harsher reality moving forwards and that regulations will be needed to adapt and better support air connectivity, Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe stated: “Regional airports were already bracing with diseconomies of scale, demand seasonality, traffic volatility and the ability of airlines to exert dominance before the COVID-19 crisis. These long-standing issues of financial viability will only be magnified by the new economic landscape coming out of the pandemic. This means that we will need a review of policy and regulations across the board to better support regional air connectivity – structurally. Amongst these the ability to keep providing operating aid to regional airports beyond the current 2024 deadline under EU State aid rules will be crucial.”

Noting that Europe’s regional airports support 1.9 million jobs and facilitate 84.5 billion in GDP, Jankovec concluded: “The reality is that for most regions, there are not, and will not be, efficient alternatives to air connectivity in the future. EUROCONTROL estimates that even taking into account the expected development of high-speed rail networks, the potential for flight reductions is only 0.4%.”

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