Paris, November 2nd – Last week, London Heathrow‘s CEO, John Holland-Kaye, announced that the British airport had been overtaken by Paris Charles-de-Gaulle as Europe’s busiest airport during the third quarter of this year. Flight-Report digs into the data behind this recomposition to understand whether this new ranking is set to last, or is merely a temporary side effect from COVID.

The uncontested front-runner prior to COVID

London Heathrow has long been the largest airport in number of passengers in Europe, respectively followed by Paris Charles-de-Gaulle, Amsterdam Schiphol and Frankfurt-am-Main. Ideally serving a dynamic and populous city like London, which also holds strong professional, cultural and historical ties with a large number of countries, the city’s main airport had lost nothing of its superbe despite the development of the competitor airports surrounding London (namely City, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Southend)

Heathrow is a major hub for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, both historically basing a significant number of their twin-aisle and double-decker aircraft on the platform, hence connecting more and more passengers through Heathrow over the recent years … until the COVID outbreak hit. Not only has Heathrow‘s traffic plummeted to record lows, but the airport has also been caught-up by the French front-runner.

How did the link between COVID and pre-existing mechanisms allow Paris CDG to catch up an arguably historical gap? And what could be the longevity of this recomposition at the top of Europe’s busiest airports ranking?

Aircraft movements are now key

Even though Heathrow has been leading in terms of volume of passengers, Paris CDG has been in front when looking at the number of aircraft movments (i.e. departing and arriving aircraft) throughout the last few years, and especially during the summer season.

The main reason behind this inversion of trend certainly lies in the saturation of Heathrow and the need for new infrastructure to extend the platform’s capacity. With a single pair of parallel and non-independent runways, Heathrow has a coordinated capacity of 90 movments per hour (which is already used at 99%). In comparison, CDG enjoys two independent pairs of runways resulting in an overall coordinated capacity of 120 movments per hour (currently used at 80%). The project of a third runway at Heathrow has been in the pipeline for a few years now, with the final decision of public authorities still uncertain.

The saturation of London Heathrow has led airlines to deploy larger aircraft on the platform prior to COVID, Heathrow regularly standing out as the European airport welcoming the highest amount of A380s in the past. And this is where COVID -at Heathrow maybe more than at other airports- has crystallised the fragile exposure of large European hubs to mass and connecting air travel.

On the one hand, Heathrow has probably been suffering from stricter and less predictable quarantine measures from national authorities in the UK applicable to incoming travellers upon arrival -with an obvious impact on passenger traffic.

Yet, even when assuming that the effect of public policies has been the same in both countries, there is significant reason to bet that Heathrow would still have lost its first place in favour of CDG. One may observe that Heathrow‘s average number of passengers per flight, reaching 154 pax/flight pre-COVID vs. 136 pax/flight for CDG, has shifted downwards in the aftermath of the COVID crisis, now more or less aligned with the new CDG ratio.

Concretely, there are two effects at play here: COVID has certainly lowered load factors aboard the airplanes, but it has also reduced the average capacity of aircraft operating these routes, with the retirement of a significant proportion of high capacity aircraft, first and foremost A380s and B747s. While the first effect might mitigate in a near future in light of the recovery, the second seems to take part in a more structural industry-wide shift towards smaller airplanes -that might eventually endanger Heathrow‘s ability to regain its first place in a medium term.

The precipitation of an expected outcome?

There is strong evidence that Paris CDG was nevertheless catching up on Heathrow prior to the COVID outbreak, and it might have been only a question of a couple of years before Heathrow was left over at the second place -or further. Since 2005, the historical average traffic growth has indeed been sharper on the French platform (almost the double), and when projecting this growth over the next few years, the shift could have happened as early as 2025. So, similarly to what has already been argued about other trends in the industry, has COVID merely accelerated an ongoing trend?

The (out-of-service) gateway to North America

Rather than an acceleration, there are signs of a potential temporary recomposition of the British hub -which also partly explains CDG‘s catch up. Once the European gateway to North America thanks to its strong ties with the United States and Canada, Heathrow has been at the frontline of the US ban on European travellers that has drastically depressed cross-Atlantic traffic.

In these Brexit days, Heathrow paradoxically re-emerges as a more European hub at the expense of its North American inclination. Is this the new normal or an ephemeral transition back to the old Heathrow? Transatlantic flights will eventually come back, and Heathrow will certainly continue to play a key role on this segment of air travel. But the shape of the recovery and, maybe more importantly for Heathrow -which has a very limited LCC frequentation-, the come back of transatlantic business travel, will help drawing the outlines of the new British gateway to the world.

Photo credits : © LHR Airports Limited