Munich Airport’s third runway to be delayed; what does it say about infrastructure ‘needs’ across Europe?

Germany’s Bavaria Coalition Government submitted a coalition agreement in which it states plans for the construction of a third runway at Munich Airport will not be pursued during the current legislative period from 2018 to 2023. The coalition stated it will, however, work on the development of an “enhanced Bavarian airport concept”, promoting Bavaria as a business location and the role of Munich Airport as a leading European aviation hub, and focusing on environmental concerns including airport noise pollution and CO2 emissions.


Summary:

  • An election in Bavaria has led to the postponement of the authorisation of Munich Airport’s third runway for five years;
  • It will focus instead on matters including noise and emissions pollution;
  • The runway is considered to be essential in some quarters but new thinking about traffic forecasts based on recent experience casts doubt on previous assumptions.

It is the final part of that statement that is the key to this position being taken. Just as London Heathrow Airport’s third runway, an additional runway at Frankfurt Airport, expansion at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and enhanced use of the nearby Lelystad Airport have all been thwarted at one time or another, with environmentalism the key culprit.

The decision is an outcome of regional elections which took place in Bavaria in mid Oct-2018 and in which the previously ruling Conservative Party (CSU) lost its absolute parliamentary majority and has been forced into an alliance with the regional and national “Freie Waehler” (FW) party (translated as “free voters”).

FW is a strange beast. It sits in the political centre and has elements of Classical Liberal tradition and some conservative ones. But there is an underlying preference towards ecologically-alternative goals in energy policy, water management and now, seemingly, transport. It has become strongly opposed to the expansion of Munich Airport, which had become a pet project of the CSU’s Prime Minister, Markus Söder. Delaying the airport for five years would appear to be a ploy by Herr Söder to strike a deal with FW to stay in power.

The planning procedure to gain approval for the third runway, one of 4,000 m, has been a long-winded affair going back over a decade. No stone was left unturned, with all steps of the plan approval completed and judicial authorities having already confirmed them, but it still needed to be rubber-stamped by the government, which is a 26% shareholder in the airport operator, FMG.

From its neutral position FMG has insisted that the airport, which grew from 32.7 million to 44.6 million ppa from 2009 to 2017, is already operating at capacity at peak times and requires the runway in order to grow the hub and improve its connectivity.

CHART – After strong rises at the start of the decade, annual traffic growth at Munich has been stable during the rest of the 2010sSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and Munich Airport reports

Munich Airport is dominated by Lufthansa in terms of both capacity (60.8% of seats) and movements (64%). The flag carrier shifted five Airbus A380s to Munich earlier this year and has started to use larger aircraft as feeders, and its own expansion has been at Munich, at the expense of Frankfurt.

The strange thing is that while the CEO of Flughafenverband ADV, Ralph Bessel, believes the delay decision on “one of the most important infrastructure projects in Germany” is “incomprehensible” and that immediate capacity expansion is necessary to meet a forecast 300 million passengers per annum in the next 12 years, the CEO of Lufthansa takes a different line.

Carsten Spohr has said that Lufthansa “could live with a delay of several years”. A few days later he appeared to clarify his position in a media interview in which he said the aviation sector has to moderate its expansion plans to ease the pressure of problems with airspace (including the now ubiquitous strikes), airports and the delivery of aircraft by manufacturers.

The Lufthansa Group as a whole will only increase seat capacity by +3.8% in 2019, which is one percentage point more than Munich Airport’s growth in the period Jan to Sep-2018. His conclusion was that “this industry has reached its maximum growth rate”.

So who is right, Herr Bessel, sticking to long-term forecasts prepared earlier, or Herr Spohr, taking a more pragmatic view? If it is the latter, it raises doubts about forecast projections for infrastructure needs across Europe.