The upturn in traffic growth was driven by the EU market, with airports in the bloc seeing passenger volumes increasing by an impressive +6.7%, according to ACI Europe.
And while terrorist attacks took a toll on demand in Belgium, France and to a much lesser extent Germany, their impact remained local and had subsided by year-end.
Conversely, passenger traffic at non-EU airports posted an average decrease of 0.9%, mainly due to falling traffic at Turkish airports (-6.6%) caused by terrorism and political instability.
Although gradually improving after the summer, passenger traffic remained weak at Russian airports for the whole year – meanwhile, other non-EU markets such as Iceland, Israel and Ukraine experienced very dynamic growth.
According to ACI Europe, the significant drop in leisure demand at Turkish airports contributed to the performance of the EU market, with this demand shifting to airports in Croatia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal, Romania and Spain.
This helped most of these markets achieving double-digit growth along with Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Poland.
ACI Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec, said: “Europe’s airports broke the two billion passengers mark last year – an absolute record.
“While geopolitics and terrorism in particular played an increasing role in shaping the fortunes and misfortunes of many airports, the underlying story is one of continued growth and expansion – with passenger volumes growing in excess of +5% for the third consecutive year.
“This means that Europe’s airports have welcomed an additional 300 million passengers since 2013, with 80% of it – some 240 million – flooding the EU market.
“Unsurprisingly, that increase is starting to weigh on capacity levels, operations and resources.
He goes on: “Much of this impressive performance is down to three interrelated factors – improving economic conditions driven by private consumption and falling unemployment; low oil prices; and airline capacity expansion.”
ACI Europe reveals that Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) were the main drivers of passenger traffic growth in 2016 on the back of their successful move upmarket, the development of low cost spin-offs by Full Service Carriers and the emergence of long-haul and low cost offerings.
As a result, it says that passenger traffic growth tended to concentrate on secondary and emerging hubs as well as medium-sized airports.
This was the case notably in gateways such as Barcelona (+11.2%), Dublin (+11.5%), Lisbon (+11.7%), Warsaw (+14.5%), Edinburgh (+11.1%), Cologne (+15.2%), Berlin (+36.7%), Birmingham (+14.3%), Budapest (+11.1%), Bucharest (+18.3%), Keflavik (+40.4%), Thessaloniki (+12.1%), Krakow (+18.1%), Sofia (+21.8%) and Vilnius (+14.3%).
Meanwhile, the top five European hubs as well as smaller regional airports significantly underperformed the European average, growing respectively by just +1.5% and +4.3%.
Among the majors, Amsterdam-Schiphol was the only one growing significantly (+9.2%), replacing Istanbul-Atatürk as the third busiest European airport with 63.6 million passengers.
London Heathrow with 75.7 million passengers (+1%) and Paris-CDG with 65.9 million (+0.3%) remain the continent’s busiest airports.
Europe’s busiest airports in 2016
1) London Heathrow – 75.7 million passengers (+1%)
2) Paris Charles de Gaulle – 65.9 million passengers (+0.3%)
3) Amsterdam Schiphol – 63.6 million passengers (+9.2%)
4) Frankfurt – 60.7 million passengers (-0.4%)
5) Istanbul Ataturk – 60 million passengers (-2.1%)
Looking ahead into 2017, Jankovec says: “This current growth dynamic is likely to hold up in the comings months, possibly until early Spring.
“Short-term downside risks relate to the price of oil – which is forecasted this year to be almost 30% above its 2016 average – and airlines exerting capacity discipline.
“Beyond that, our trading environment is becoming more unpredictable and prone to disruptions, due to mounting geopolitical risks.
“These include the permanence of terrorism threats, increasing political instability both within and outside Europe and BREXIT.
“These risks reflect a set of emerging mega-trends which are now challenging globalisation and free trade – and which could fundamentally alter airports’ long-term business prospects.”