EUROPE. Regional airports in the European Union face significant disruption unless the legalities of the future relationship between the UK and the EU’s Single Aviation Market are resolved in the near future.

That’s according to ACI Europe, which is discussing the issue at its Regional Airports Conference & Exhibition in Cork, Ireland today.

“The uncertainty will soon cast a shadow on air route development in Europe, as airlines and airports will soon start planning their networks for 2019,” ACI Europe said.

“The EU-27’s regional airports with less than 1 million passengers per year are the most dependent on connectivity with the UK (15.4%). Without a clear resolution of that uncertainty in the near future, air transport in Europe risks facing significant disruption – with regional airports and their communities probably suffering the most.”

ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec: “Since 2008, regional airports have seen their direct connectivity grow by just +10.6%”

ACI Europe said it would continue to highlight airports’ exposure to Brexit and the potential fallout for air passengers to the relevant Brexit negotiation teams.

Looking at wider regulatory challenges, Alberto Martin, Chair of the Regional Airports’ Forum and Director of Aena’s Gran Canaria Airport, said: “We fully support the European Commission’s Aviation Strategy and its renewed focus on growth, jobs and investment. But we are still calling for a better policy framework for regional airports across the board – from airport charges to safety and security. Given the positive externalities airports bring to their communities, we also need a more realistic and less discriminatory approach to European funding for transport infrastructure.

“With more point-to-point medium and long haul flights becoming viable thanks to airliners such as the 737MAX and A320 neo, this means that effective aviation liberalisation really is the way forward for airports and their communities. This is about diversifying our traffic mix, offering more convenient direct connections requested by travellers and ultimately enhancing our business resilience.”

Over 170 participants from airports, airlines, industry suppliers and institutional stakeholders are attending the Regional Airports Conference & Exhibition, which has a theme of ‘A New Era of Engagement & Digital Innovation’.

ACI Europe said that while 2016 saw regional airports underperform against the wider industry average in terms of passenger traffic growth (+4.3% versus +5.1%), 2017 was off to a better start. Regional airports are growing at a faster pace, it said, with +7.9% first quarter growth compared to an industry average of +6.9%.

ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec said: “Many regional airports are now attracting more dynamic passenger growth, but it’s not a free-for-all. Airline partners have become much more discerning about where they establish new routes. Their focus now tends to be on growing larger and established markets in search of higher yields, rather than venturing into new ones. This makes airport competition for new flights and network development fiercer than ever.

“Network development has become more concentrated and less inclusive – leaving smaller regional airports and their communities potentially exposed to losses in connectivity. Since 2008, regional airports have seen their direct connectivity grow by just +10.6% – below the gains achieved by other airports. With the low cost carrier revolution now going long haul, new opportunities are arising for regional airports. Cork Airport is a pioneering example of this, as it is about to welcome both Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW air’s transatlantic services. This is a fascinating development, but down the line, these opportunities will not apply to every regional airport.”