CONNECT at 20
This year is the 20th anniversary of the first CONNECT event (then known as French CONNECT) which was held in Liverpool in the UK. My first experience of the event was the following year in 2005 when it was held in Sheffield. It was the first time I had stayed away from home since the birth of my son in April of that year. After that I attended every event up to Cagliari in 2019. As I write this article and make travel plans to attend this latest event in Turin, he has just completed his first term at university. Doesn’t time fly.
In that time much has also changed in the European aviation market. Back in 2004, easyJet, having acquired Go in 2001/02, was about the same size as Ryanair according to Cirium data. Among self-proclaimed low-cost carriers, the next biggest were airberlin, Flybe, germanwings, bmibaby and Italy’s Volare, though it could certainly be argued that neither airberlin nor Flybe were really low-cost. 2004 was undoubtedly a pivotal year for Europe’s burgeoning low-cost airline market with Wizz Air welcoming its first passengers in May 2004 in Katowice and Vueling operating its first flight from Barcelona in July 2004. These two carriers have gone on to become the third and fourth biggest European (U)LCCs in 2023.
The French connection
The original vision of the event was to encourage greater competition in the French market which was perceived to be lagging behind other major European country markets in having attracted fewer low-cost carrier services to stimulate demand. It is worth recalling the landscape at the time in the French market. Air Littoral, a significant domestic player had ceased operations in early 2004. Another local carrier, Air Liberté had also stopped flying in early 2003 after having merged with AOM French Airlines in 2001.
According to Cirium data, by June 2004 Air France and its regional partners had 90% of the French domestic market with Air Corsica (part owned by Air France) having a further 5% of the market. The only real competition at the time came from easyJet which offered four domestic routes; between three and four daily flights from Paris Orly to Marseille, Nice and Toulouse as well as from Paris CDG to Nice. This gave the UK carrier just over 4% of the domestic market. Clearly French customers deserved more competition and a more extensive domestic route network that included more regional routes that avoided Paris.
After the UK hosted the first two events, French airports then hosted seven of the next eight annual events, up to 2013. These events definitely helped encourage more carriers to explore the French market and by June 2014 easyJet’s share of the domestic market had grown to 11.5%, while Volotea (3.2%) and Ryanair (2.3%) had helped (U)LCCs quadruple their share of the market to 17%.
In the French international (short- and medium-haul) market that first decade also saw significant changes. Air France’s share of seat capacity fell from 34% in June 2004 to 21% in June 2014 (24% if you included its low-cost subsidiary Transavia France). easyJet’s share of the market grew from 5% to 12.5%, Ryanair’s from 5% to almost 10% and Vueling now had 5%. In particular, the French airports outside of Paris had seen spectacular growth in non-stop international services; Nantes had gone from three to 42, Montpellier from four to 14 and Bordeaux from 16 to 43.
By the time CONNECT celebrated its 10th anniversary in Marrakech in 2014 it had broadened its horizons to look at the whole of the European market as well as North Africa and the Caucasus. This was reflected in the subsequent hosts being located in Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Italy (twice), Lithuania, Morocco, Turkey as well as a return to France (Ajaccio in Corsica) in 2017.
Post-pandemic recovery still in progress
Clearly, the last decade has not been without its challenges. The COVID pandemic that broke out just after the 2020 event in Antalya, resulted in huge uncertainty for airlines, airports and the whole of the commercial aviation industry across Europe. Some markets have recovered more quickly than others, as the European Airport Traffic Statistics (EATS) database on the Air Service One website clearly highlights.
Parts of Europe such Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey are already seeing passenger demand in excess of 2019 levels. From an admittedly relatively low base, Albania’s air traffic has more than doubled since 2019 primarily thanks to Wizz Air. Other countries, notably Finland, Germany and Sweden still have some way to go, with domestic air travel in particular failing to get back to pre-pandemic levels. The evidence is fairly clear across Europe that while VFR and leisure travel is now at, or above, pre-2019 levels, business/corporate traffic is not yet fully recovered in many markets.
Air Service One has been identifying all the new services launched by carriers involving European airports since the pandemic. The first new routes we found were at the end of May 2020. Thereafter airlines got quite creative depending on government travel restrictions in finding new (if only temporary) markets for their aircraft. Combined with the routes that had started in early 2020 before the pandemic struck, we noted around 950 new airline services in 2020. This was just over half the new routes launched in 2019 (1,850). In 2021 this increased to 2,100 new airline routes before dropping back to 1,860 in 2022. Last year we logged around 1,430 new airline services across Europe.
The Italian job
This year it is the turn of Turin to host CONNECT and for car and film enthusiasts the location will be synonymous with Fiat cars and the 1969 movie The Italian Job starring Michael Caine and a fleet of Mini cars. The fact that the event will be staged within what was once the Fiat factory, which had the company’s test track on its roof, seems entirely appropriate.
Turin Airport, which welcomed a record number of passengers in 2023 (just over 4.5 million), will be hoping to use the event to help further develop its portfolio of almost 20 airlines. December saw the airport welcome two new airlines; Dan Air from Bacau in Romania and airBaltic from Vilnius.