The new record means that passenger traffic across Europe has soared by 36% over the past five years.
The 2018 total equates to 136.6 million more people than in 2017, with Europe's top five airports (London Heathrow, Paris CDG, Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt and Istanbaul Atatürk) welcoming an additional 16.5 million passengers.
ACI Europe notes that while growth somehow moderated in 2018 when compared to the exceptional performance of 2017 (+8.5%), it remained very dynamic – especially considering underlying economic trends and geopolitical tensions.
It adds that continued airline capacity expansion played a major role, as aircraft movements grew by +4% – even faster than in 2017 (+3.8%).
However, a slow down in freight, BREXIT and the fact that airport capacity constraints are becoming more widespread and evident is a concern for ACI Europe.
Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe, commented: “Managing such growth has been quite a challenge and the strain on airport facilities and staff is real.
"Capacity and quality are now major issues for an increasing number of airports across Europe. This of course requires investment but also greater operational efficiency – through effective airport ATM [air traffic management] integration and alignment with all other stakeholders.”
Passenger traffic at EU airports posted an average increase of+5.4% in 2018 (compared with +7.7% in 2017) – with ATM disruptions, airline strikes and consolidation limiting gains in several markets up to the summer.
Since then growth has been on an upward trend, with December closing at nearly +7%.
Airports in the Eastern and Southern parts of the EU achieved the best performances, along with those in Austria and Luxembourg.
Accordingly, the following capital and primary airports posted double-digit growth: Vilnius (+30.9%), Bratislava (+18.1%), Riga (+15.7%), Budapest (+13.5%), Tallinn (+13.4%), Malta (+13.2%), Warsaw-Chopin (+12.8%), Milan-Malpensa (+11.5%), Luxembourg (+12.2%), Athens (+11.2%), Vienna (+10.8%) and Helsinki (+10.4%).
Conversely, the weakest results came from airports in Sweden (where passenger traffic stalled in the wake of the introduction of an aviation tax) and the UK (a reflection of mounting BREXIT fears on the economy).
Meanwhile, non-EU airports saw passenger traffic expand by +8.3%(compared to +7.7% in 2017). However, unlike in the EU market, growth has followed a downward trend throughout the year, from an impressive +14.6% in January to +3.5% in December.
This, says ACI Europe, was mainly due to domestic demand at Turkish airports being affected by the country’s economic woes (total passenger traffic growth at Turkish airports stood at +0.9% in Q4), weaker demand at Norwegian airports and growth coming to halt at Icelandic airports towards the end of the year (-0.1% in December).
Conversely, airports in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Israel, Albania, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina grew above the non-EU average.
It reveals that the best individual airport performances came from Kutaisi (+52.5%), Antalya (+21.1%), Tbilisi (+20.4%), Kiev (+19.4%), Kharkiv (+19.3%), Bodrum (+18.8%), Rostov (+18.8%), Moscow-Vnukovo (+18.4%), Skopje (+15.5%), Pristina (+14.7%) and Moscow-Sheremetyevo (+14.3%).
The ''Majors' (Europe’s Top 5 busiest airports) registered a +4.8% growth in passenger traffic in 2018, down from +5.5% the preceding year.
According to ACI Europe, this lower performance compared to the European average reflected mainly capacity limitations, intensifying hub competition and hub by-pass developments as well as airline strikes.
Frankfurt achieved the highest growth amongst the league (+7.8% - 4th position with 69.51 million passengers), on the back of a successful traffic diversification strategy.
Istanbul-Atatürk posted the second best performance (+6.4% - 5th position with 68.19 million passengers), but saw passenger traffic slowing down significantly towards the end of the year (only +1% in Q4).
The Turkish hub was followed by Paris-CDG (+4% - 2nd position with 72.22 million passengers), where strikes at the home-based network carrier took their toll.
Meanwhile, capacity constraints more than halved growth at Amsterdam-Schiphol (+3.7% compared to +7.7% in 2017 – 3rd position with 71.05 million passengers) and also limited gains at London Heathrow (+2.7%), which remained the busiest airport in Europe, with 80.12 million passengers.
In contrast with passenger traffic dynamics, freight traffic decelerated sharply in 2018, with growth of only +1.8% compared with +8.4% in 2017.
The deceleration primarily affected EU airports (+1.1%) and less so non-EU ones (+5.6%). It turned into traffic losses in November (-1.4%) and December (-2.2%).
Among the top 10 European airports for freight, only the following reported growth: Liège (+21.6% - 8th position), Istanbul-Atatürk (+9.6% - 5th position), Cologne-Bonn (+2.7% - 9th position) and Brussels (+3.7% - 10th position).
Looking ahead Jankovec remarks: “The trend of decreasing freight traffic is hard to ignore. It reflects weakening economic data and contraction forces at play, not just in Europe but around the World.
"These will ultimately translate into lower passenger demand. Adding to that, volatile oil prices, labour cost pressures and more consolidation should also lead airlines to be more cautious with capacity expansion.
"So pressures on passenger traffic are likely to come both from the demand and supply sides in 2019.”
He adds: “With less than 60 days left before the UK exits the EU, BREXIT remains the top immediate risk. However, the latest no-deal contingency measures from the EU no longer provide for a capacity freeze on EU27-UK air routes for UK airlines. This will very much help mitigate the impact and protect air connectivity.”