Several of Europe’s leading airlines in recent weeks have issued an upbeat full-year financial outlook on the back of strong demand, but Eurocontrol on Monday released a downward-revised forecast indicating that under the most likely scenario, air traffic in Europe will not recover to 2019 levels until after 2024. Eurocontrol’s prior forecast, issued in June, showed a recovery happening a year earlier.

“We have seen strong demand this summer but this has been held back, both by the capacity of the sector to handle the rapid growth and also by the impact of the war in Ukraine,” commented Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan. “As a result, we expect to see about 9.3 million flights this year, 49 percent more than in 2021 but still 16 percent fewer than we had in 2019. We are optimistic about traffic recovering to around 92 percent of 2019 levels next year. But there are still significant downside risks that could affect the recovery.”

In its June forecast, Eurocontrol’s baseline scenario projected that about 9.5 million flights would operate in the network this year, 10.6 million flights in 2023, or 5 percent less than in 2019, and full recovery to 2019 levels happening in 2024. The new seven-year forecast—which updates and extends the short-term outlook from June—sets out three scenarios, accounting for the impact of Ukraine’s invasion by Russia, the macroeconomic situation, and the Covid-19 recovery.

The most optimistic scenario shows a recovery to 2019 levels during 2023 and the most pessimistic forecasts a full traffic recovery after 2028. In June, its low scenario expected a delay in the recovery to 2019 levels until after 2027.

The updated pessimistic traffic growth scenario considers the effect of several downside risks, including that some of the staff shortages experienced in summer 2022 will occur again in 2023, affecting the capacity of airlines and airports, and that a number of European countries will slide into recession in 2023, reducing demand for travel. Elements contributing to the pessimistic scenario of a full recovery only in 2028 include environmental concerns greatly affecting travel choices, a substantial replacement of business travel by digital alternatives, and the occasional resurgence of Covid-19 variants, leading to possible travel restrictions at the local level. The scenario also considers a slowdown of the cargo sector owing to a deterioration of logistics sector staffing in 2023.

The most likely baseline scenario calls for recovery in 2025. That scenario assumes a weak GDP in 2023 for most European countries and, despite relatively strong passenger confidence, high inflation and growing environmental concerns in some European states will affect demand. It also sees negative effects of the partial replacement of business travel by digital alternatives and staffing and capacity shortfalls among airlines next year, but still projects a significant improvement over 2022.

Eurocontrol does expect that the European ATM network will continue to feel the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine throughout the seven years of its forecast. There will be “no return to normal” routing by the end of the seven-year horizon,” it said. “Restrictions on Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, and Moldovan airspaces will remain until 2028.”


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