Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

‘Full’ Heathrow Extends European Hub Lead as Terror Hurts Rivals

  • London airport outpaces Paris CDG even with runways at limit
  • Amsterdam Schiphol trumps Istanbul Ataturk after growth surge

London’s Heathrow airport, which has operated close to the capacity of its two runways since the start of the decade, eked out a further 700,000 passengers to extend its lead as Europe’s top travel hub in 2016 as growth in Paris stuttered and Istanbul and Frankfurt fell back.

Heathrow’s traveler tally increased 1 percent to 75.7 million, while aircraft movements gained just 0.2 percent, suggesting that a trend toward the use of bigger jets at the airport, the main base for British Airways, continued last year as airlines sought to deploy more seats per flight.

Paris Charles de Gaulle remained in second spot with its passenger total rising 0.3 percent to 65.9 million, hurt by a slump in demand for travel to France following a spate of terrorist attacks. Security concerns also saw numbers fall 2 percent at Istanbul Ataturk, which dropped from third to fifth, swapping places with Amsterdam Schiphol, which posted a mammoth 9.1 percent gain.

The Dutch airport has benefited from its six runways, tied to growth last year at the KLM and Transavia arms of Air France-KLM Group. At the same time it, too, could begin to run up against capacity constraints, with movements increasing to 479,000 in 2016, equal to 96 percent of the 500,000 cap imposed to limit the impact of noise and pollution.

“We were surprised by traveler volumes,” Schiphol Chief Executive Officer Jos Nijhuis said in a statement. “We were prepared for all sorts of scenarios, but these were mostly cautious. Like many forecasters and economists, we remained in ‘recession mode’ for far too long.”

Istanbul Ataturk had expanded at a rate unrivaled in Europe in recent years, overtaking Madrid and Amsterdam in 2014, and Frankfurt in 2015. That growth ended as visitors stayed away in 2016 following terror attacks across the country and Turkish Airlines reined in growth in the wake of the atrocities and July’s failed coup attempt.

In Germany, Frankfurt suffered a 0.4 percent decline to 60.8 million customers as strikes at Deutsche Lufthansa AG, its biggest operator, led to the scrapping of 4,500 flights in November and the airline switched the focus of growth to the Eurowings discount brand, which doesn’t operate from the hub. The decline was less severe than the 2 percent predicted by Fraport AG in November.

Amsterdam aside, Europe’s fastest-growing major airports were Madrid and Barcelona, as tourist travel switched from the strife-ridden eastern and southern Mediterranean further west. That helped boost the market value of Spanish airport operator Aena SA 23 percent to 20 billion euros ($21 billion).

While Heathrow may not be able to maintain its European lead indefinitely, and has already been overtaken by Dubai as the world’s busiest international hub, the airport last year won its campaign for a 16 billion-pound ($20 billion) third runway which would lift annual capacity to 135 million passengers.

London Gatwick, which had been vying with Heathrow for the right to add a runway, saw the number of passengers flying from its sole landing strip jump 7.1 percent to 43.1 million. Including figures from the Stansted, Luton and City terminals, the U.K. capital was once again easily the world’s biggest multi-airport system.

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