Organised by ACI Europe, the annual event turns the spotlight on the continent’s smaller gateways and highlights the important role they play in meeting passenger demand.
In his opening address, ACI Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec, revealed that the growth of regional airports has significantly underperformed the industry average – with passenger traffic growing by just +3.4% between 2008 and 2013 compared to an overall industry average of +11%.
“After 10 years of extremely dynamic growth, the global financial crisis was really a turning point for regional airports across Europe," he said.
“Their traffic recovery has lagged behind the industry average. This is mainly due to the fact that airlines have not added much capacity in the market and that they have tended to retrench on hubs, trunk routes and larger markets which are able to deliver higher yields.”
He, however, noted that in 2013 there was a clear divide between the experience of airports in EU and non-EU countries, with traffic rising by just 1% in the EU in comparison to 9.6% in non-EU nations where the increase was driven by soaring passenger throughput across Russia and Turkey.
In addition to Russia and Turkey, Jankovec revealed that Scandinavia and Portugal “performed well” in a year that was characterised by big differences in performance of individual nations.
On a more positive note, he said that 2014 was shaping up to be a good year for traffic growth, with throughput at regional airports expected to rise by around 3%.
Passenger boosting Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) now have bases at 98 regional airports, a rise of 16% on 2012, noted Jankovec.
Negatives to growth, according to Jankovec, include high aviation taxes in countries such as the UK, Germany and Austria; increased geo-political risks because of ongoing events in the Ukraine; and high oil prices.
He said going forward, ACI Europe expected airlines to concentrate on yields and trunk routes with higher capacity and frequency, which would create "tough trading conditions" for regional airports and lead to “increased dominance by the airlines”.
“Airlines are increasingly dictating the terms to airports about how they use our infrastructure,” said Jankovec.
"LCCs are moving upmarket, increasingly targeting primary or larger airports. At the same time, Full Service Carriers tend to limit capacity growth to their long-haul network out of their hub airports, while Regional Airlines are focused on survival.
"All this means regional airports will continue to face significant headwinds – with network instability, seasonality risks and fierce inter-airport competition.”
The number one challenge for regional airports, according to ACI Europe, remains economic sustainability.
“It is clear that structurally, many small regional airports are unable to be profitable – 58% of airports handling less than five million passengers per year are loss making and that figure jumps to 75% for airports handling less than one million passengers.
"Their ability to increase their aeronautical charges is almost non-existent, due to the impact this would have on keeping existing air services and attracting new ones.
"With public financing retreating and tighter EU State aid rules, the only way forward appears to be cutting costs further."
And he warned that this was nothing new for Europe's regional airports.
“In the wake of the financial and euro-zone crises, most regional airports have already gone through extensive cost cutting," said Jankovec.
"There is very little low hanging fruit remaining and we now face the very real prospect of airport closures in several countries – notably in the UK, France, Germany and Italy."
At the same time, regional airports are facing increased connectivity risks – which are also directly affecting their communities, he told delegates.
Unveiling some of the preliminary findings of a comprehensive European Airport Industry Connectivity Report due to be launched next month, ACI Europe pointed to a worrying trend, which has seen direct connectivity from regional airports with less than 5mppa decrease by -3.4% since 2008.
In contrast, their indirect connectivity – via hubs and other airports – has increased by +17% over the same period.
Jankovec said: “The recent losses in direct connectivity reflects an increasing concentration of air traffic. They also show that regional airports are becoming more dependent on hubs to deliver the connectivity that their communities are requiring.
"Direct routes and frequencies have been lost, and this is detrimental to regional and local economic development.
"Market developments are presently not moving towards restoring these connectivity losses and if airline consolidation finally takes hold in Europe, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.
"This is precisely what has happened in the US, where airlines have squeezed out smaller cities, as reported in a 2013 MIT report.”
ACI Europe linked these challenges to its own competitive agenda for Europe’s regional airports.
Its agenda calls for more tailor-made policies and regulations adequately reflecting the constraints inherent to these airports and the increasing market dominance of airlines.
Thomas Langeland, chair of ACI Europe’s Regional Airports Forum and director of Kristiansand Airport in Norway, commented: “Policies and regulations in Europe need to be more supportive of regional airports so as to safeguard their unique contribution to local economies.
"This includes making sure the review of the recently adopted State aid guidelines in four years’ time will still allow for operating aid for smaller airports.
"It also includes banning the one bag rule through the revision of EU legislation on passenger rights and tackling the increases in Terminal Navigation charges which directly hurt our competitive position.”
Langeland concluded: “With a new European Parliament about to be elected and a new European Commission scheduled to take office after the summer, I really hope that these issues will be tackled as they ultimately have a very direct and tangible impact on the life of businesses and citizens across the Regions of Europe.”