Third runway approved at Vienna Airport, but is it justifiable on recent growth estimates?

Austria’s Administrative Court (VwGH) has now approved the construction of a third runway at Vienna International airport after overturning appeals made on the basis of noise complaints and environmental impact, which have continued for several years. The project will be completed by no earlier than 2030.


Summary:

  • A third runway has been judicially approved for Vienna Airport, to open in or after 2030;
  • Passenger traffic growth has increased but aircraft movements have declined, making forecasting difficult;
  • While low-cost services are driving growth at Vienna right now, the Austrian capital’s gateway remains dependent on connecting traffic.

The rate of passenger traffic growth at Vienna International since 2012 has been consistent in the stable to +5% range, but it increased dramatically in 2018, more than doubling the previous year’s growth rate to 10.8% and passing 27 million passengers for the first time. In the first two months of 2019 it has more than doubled again to +25%.

CHART – Passenger traffic at Vienna International airport grew at double-digit levels in 2018 and is up around a quarter across the first two months of this yearSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and Vienna International airport reports

It is unlikely that these recent growth levels influenced the decision, especially when you consider the runway won’t be ready for 11 years but this case does highlight the difficulties of long-term traffic forecasting. With two 3,500m x 45m runways which should be able to handle an increase in mixed aircraft movements well into the future at the ‘average’ movements (2012-2017) growth rate of -1.5% (yes, minus 1.5%), the case for a third runway is not so clear.

On the other hand, if movements increased by +7.3% every year as they did in 2018 (2019: +15.6% year to date) then another runway might be required long before 2030.

CHART – Aircraft movements at Vienna International airport declined across most of the 2010s before rising again in 2018 and continuing that growth in the first two months of 2019Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and Vienna International airport reports

The main sources of this increased traffic growth include Laudamotion (or plain Lauda as it will once again become). In summer 2019, the Ryanair-controlled airline will grow its Vienna base from four to eight aircraft, and then for winter 2019, it will increase further to 11 aircraft.

Currently, Laudamotion has 46,000 Vienna seats weekly just ahead of Wizz Air (44,000 seats), which is also expanding, and behind Eurowings (61,000 seats) and market leader Austrian Airlines (313,000 seats). Another airline likely to be a part of this equation is Anisec Luftfart, branded as Level Austria, part of IAG and which has operated from Vienna since Jul-2018 with four A321 aircraft acquired from the defunct airberlin and Niki.

Vienna is starting to reacquire a taste for low-cost again (airberlin had been the second largest carrier by passenger numbers prior to its collapse) despite an apparent distaste amongst the management for excessive levels of budget flights. As The Blue Swan Daily previously reported, there are no plans to reposition the airport from its transfer routes.

The control that is still exercised by Austrian Airlines must not be overlooked. Austrian currently has a 43% share of all seats (though that ratio has declined a little) and 48.6% of movements. As a consequence, and allowing for any propensity towards self-connection at Vienna, while the number of local passengers increased sharply by 30.6% in Feb-2019, transfer passenger volume was also up by 8.6%.

Vienna International made its name as a connecting airport rather than an origin & destination one, with an official connecting time of just 30 minutes between Austrian Airlines flights being one of the lowest in the business. The airport management will be keen not to let slip that competitive advantage if it can avoid it.

While Austrian’s market dominance in this arena and 43% capacity share may sound a lot, it is actually not. The Blue Swan Daily analysis comparing the ratio of seats on the respective flag carrier at Vienna International, Europe’s four largest hub airports, and two local rivals highlights this clearly.

TABLE – Vienna International remains a major transfer hub, but dominant national carrier Austrian Airlines has a much lower capacity share than is seen at other major and peer airports in EuropeSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation Airport Profiles (data: w/c 25-Mar-2019)

It is evident that the two German airports and Zurich, all of which “vie with Vienna” for west-east connecting traffic in particular, have flag carriers which account for between 15 and 20 percentage points additional capacity over that of Austrian in Vienna.

Budget airlines come and go, along with the demand for them. It may be that Bratislava Airport, just 70km from Vienna Airport and a little further from Vienna itself, and which is growing strongly again now may start to impact on the LCC growth at Vienna, especially when it is concessioned to the private sector. It might be that the transfer traffic, through Austrian and the Star Alliance, will prove to be the real reason for the need for a third runway.