Why do French regional airports handle comparatively so few passengers?

Nantes Atlantique Airport, on France’s Atlantic coast in the Bay of Biscay, handled its five millionth passenger for the year on 21-Nov-2017, which ranks it seventh among French regional airports. The airport is getting so congested that the go-ahead for the construction of the Notre Dame des Landes airport to replace it is now critical (see ‘Quelle surprise! Residents protest over an airport – but this time they are in favour of it‘).


Summary:

  • French regional airports in the mid-range typically handle fewer passengers each year than do similar airports in countries such as Germany and the UK.
  • This is partly explained by French economic geography and the distribution of population.
  • It is also influenced by a failure to develop long-haul services outside of the Paris region and a lack of LCC penetration, especially by local carriers.

But that statistic also reveals that France’s regional airports are not especially busy compared to those in countries like the UK and Germany. One of those two countries, the UK, has a similar distribution of air passengers in the sense that much of the activity is centred on the capital. In Germany that is not the case; there is a growing tendency there towards equalisation of supply and demand around main two centres (Frankfurt and Munich), with Berlin poised to become a third, and potentially Düsseldorf and Hamburg joining in so that that a ‘box’ of primary and secondary hubs across the country could emerge. (CAPA produced this recent premium report that is valid for subscribers: ‘Germany’s unusual potential for three main airport hubs – or even four or five‘).

Whatever the case, passenger numbers tend to be higher in the mid-range of tables in both Germany and the UK than in France.

TABLE – A Comparison of the top 10 airports in France, Germany and the UK highlights key differences between traffic levels in the country Source: The Blue Swan Daily and CAPA – Centre for Aviation Profiles (data: 2016; NB: The figures for France do not include the trans-border Euroairport, part of which is in France (Mulhouse), or the airports in the overseas territories of Guadeloupe, Réunion or Martinique, each of which would otherwise be in the table)

Looking at these figures it is clear that a great deal of traffic is concentrated on Paris (101 million passengers) and London (157.7 million) in the respective tables. Both are intensely capital-centric countries economically. While the population of the Paris city-region (not Paris itself, which is a relatively small city for a capital) is greater than the London city-region the immediate catchment area of the London airports extends further into the neighbouring ‘Home Counties’ to a total area population of around 17 million. The Paris airports do not have the same immediate wider catchment area.

The situation in Germany, which is not capital-centric, is different, with passenger traffic being more equally distributed around financial (Frankfurt), industrial (Munich, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart), and administrative (Berlin) centres. Frankfurt is at the top of the tree because of its central location and excellent surface transport (road, rail) connections but even then, its total passenger traffic in 2016, including the distant Frankfurt Hahn airport, which is 11th in the table after Nuremberg, was only 63.4 million, well behind London and Paris.

None of this explains why the French provincial airports trail their UK and German peers in the traffic tables. The rot sets in so to speak at #3 in the table. Nice, a major tourist resort as well as a commercial centre, is less than half as busy as is Manchester (UK) and only a little more than half as busy as Düsseldorf (Germany). Similar discrepancies apply throughout the table, down to #10.

Part of the reason is that geographically speaking France is more like Spain than Germany or the UK. The population is spread more widely and thinly over a greater area as any night-time view from space will confirm. It does not have agglomerations of population as Germany does (the Ruhr industrial belt; southern Bavaria; metro Hamburg etc) or the city-town urban complexes of the UK (Greater Manchester; West Yorkshire; the West Midlands; Strathclyde). Cities and towns tend to be smaller standalone entities and the size of their airports reflects that.

Furthermore, even where there are large urban agglomerations such as in and around Lyon and Marseille, where airports are much smaller than their foreign peers, those airports have failed to develop certain types of air service as well as the middle-range German and UK airports have. Lyon for example has only three year-round long haul services, as has Marseille, a grand total of six between them. Manchester, which the authorities in Lyon identified as a benchmark for their own future development several years ago, has 32, while Düsseldorf has 23 (including services scheduled to commence in 2018).

Then there is the question of LCC penetration, or the lack of it. The biggest driver towards the expansion of regional secondary and tertiary airports continues to be the budget carrier. But apart from Transavia France, which is part Dutch anyway, France still doesn’t have a genuine short haul budget carrier of its own (though it does have several of the long-haul variety).

CHART – Less than one-third of international seats in France in 2017 are on budget airlines and that ratio drops to less than one-fifth in the case of domestic seatsSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

What is more, the LCC proportion has barely risen. In Germany that figure is actually fairly similar though the LCC ratio has increased in 2017. In the UK though almost 45% of international seats are on LCCs and well over a third domestically while in Spain the ratios are 57.4% and 46.2% respectively and in Italy 47.9%/49.7%. And they are well distributed around regional airports.

Other reasons that may come into play include the power of the domestic (and international) high speed rail service, which connects many cities both with Paris and with each other, and the fact that many foreign tourists to France, which is still the world’s most visited country, arrive by road or sea/road.