European recovery divide continues into 2024
The European aviation sector’s recovery in 2023 has been uneven, with most southern and southeast European markets surpassing pre-pandemic 2019 records, while the majority in the west and north are still trailing behind.
These trends persist into the first quarter of 2024 when compared to the same three-month period in 2019, which was unaffected by the global health emergency. Analysis of capacity data provided by airlines to Cirium shows that Europe has 290.3 million available seats in Q1, representing a decrease of 3.2% on the same period during 2019.
Several factors continue to impact the European aviation landscape, including ongoing inflation and higher oil prices, constraints on airline capacity growth due to aircraft and spare parts supply issues, and increased geopolitical risks.
Balkans lead European growth dynamic
In the first quarter of 2024, Albania maintains its position with the most significant percentile increase in available seat capacity in Europe. This growth is being fuelled by its burgeoning tourism industry, the ongoing competition between Ryanair and Wizz Air at Tirana Airport, and rising demand from Middle East markets. Albania has 1.33 million seats for the first three months of the year, marking a notable 205% increase compared to 2019, equivalent to an additional 900,000 seats.
Following Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia continue to exhibit robust growth, with capacity increases of 79.5% and 59.4%, respectively. Other Balkan markets, including Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and Greece, closely follow suit.
The capacity expansion in the Balkans is driven by several factors. Increased demand for inbound tourism and the growing Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) sector contribute to the surge in passenger traffic. Furthermore, the strong performance of national carriers, such as Air Serbia in Serbia and Aegean Airlines in Greece, has played a pivotal role in the positive trajectory of these markets.
UK is Europe’s largest aviation market
In Q1 2024, the United Kingdom maintains its position as the largest aviation market in Europe. Boasting over 37.8 million seats, it is approaching its 2019 record, when it had 38.7 million seats on sale during the first quarter. Spain, Türkiye, and Italy follow, benefitting from robust demand for both inbound and outbound tourism.
Germany, which is among the five largest European aviation markets (highlighted in red in the graph), continues to trail behind its counterparts on the continent. The country is grappling with a notable decline in domestic seat capacity. Many low-cost carriers that previously operated domestic services have yet to fully reinstate flights and frequencies between various city-pairs in Germany.
ULCCs lead European growth
Among Europe’s busiest carriers, Wizz Air has demonstrated robust growth (Q1 seats up 102.7%), as well as Ryanair (27.5%) and Pegasus Airlines (16.2%). The expansion by European ULCCs continues to be selective throughout the quarter, focusing strongly on southern Europe.
On the other hand, several other large European carriers have seen their capacity contract. Notable among them are Lufthansa (Q1 seats down 22.5%), Air France (18.8%) and SAS Scandinavian Airlines (28.5%). Additionally, Aeroflot, impacted by the conflict in Ukraine and related sanctions, has decreased its overall capacity by a significant 4.8 million seats (41.3%).
Full recovery during 2024
European aviation is anticipated to achieve a full recovery in 2024 when compared to the pre-pandemic 2019. Despite the slow start to the year, passenger traffic is expected to grow 1.3% in Q2, 2.6% in Q3 and 1.4% in Q4, according to ACI Europe.
The performance gaps amongst European markets are expected to narrow over the summer with major hubs and other larger airports, particularly in the west and north, to see demand recovery from Asia (China) accelerating.