Follow Me: Bucking the trend: Why air traffic is declining in Germany

Despite many crises such as 9/11, global air traffic was considered a growth market for decades.

Follow Me: Bucking the trend: Why air traffic is declining in Germany

Despite many crises such as 9/11, global air traffic was considered a growth market for decades. In 2019, 4.5 billion passengers were counted worldwide. When the pandemic broke out, there was a massive slump of 60 percent a year later, which led to aircraft being grounded and staff moving to other industries.

With the lifting of travel restrictions, aviation has recovered over the past two years. In some cases, demand even exceeds supply, which has led to higher ticket prices. In the first eight months of this year, the number of all passengers was only six percent below the pre-Covid-19 level, as a study by the Institute for Air Transport shows. The scientists at the newest facility from the German Aerospace Institute (DLR) are investigating the development of national and international flight movements based on flight plan data.

In Germany, on the other hand, air traffic is still a long way from the traffic figures of 2019. “The development of volumes is weak,” said Sven Maertens from DLR when presenting the analysis at the annual meeting of the Aviation Press Club in Nuremberg. The decline in passengers carried in the months of January up to and including August 2023 was 24 percent compared to the year before the pandemic. In the European Union, passenger numbers have only fallen by eight percent.

If you just look at flight movements, the recovery looks even better across Europe. In the summer of 2023, the number of take-offs and landings increased to such an extent that 95 percent of the flight intensity of 2019 was achieved - in Germany it was only 78 percent. “The number of flight movements is growing more dynamically in Europe than in Germany,” sums up Sven Maerten.

The gap widens even more when looking at the low-cost provider segment. Airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair flew within Europe in the first eight months of this year, only four percent below the number of passengers in 2019. In contrast, the low-cost airlines transported 42 percent fewer passengers to and from Germany.

The partial withdrawal of low-costers from the German market is responsible for the latter development. After the bankruptcy of Air Berlin, the British Easyjet stationed 34 jets at Tegel and Schönefeld airports. But last winter the fleet shrank to eleven aircraft today. Easyjet had long since withdrawn from domestic German air traffic, as had Ryanair. The Irish used to fly back and forth between Berlin and Cologne/Bonn several times a day.

It's not just low-cost airlines that unanimously criticize the high airport fees and aviation security costs in Germany. Therefore, they have withdrawn their machines and are using them on other European routes that promise higher profits.

The Board of Airline Representatives in Germany (Barig) also complains that aviation security fees have more than doubled in the last three years. The Federal Cabinet recently decided to increase the maximum fee for passenger and baggage checks from 10 to 15 euros. The increase “would not only mean significantly higher costs for the airlines and passengers, but would also further intensify the already high burden of fees for air traffic and thus be very damaging to the recovery and development of Germany as an aviation location as a whole,” complained Barig Chairman Michael Hoppe in November .

Within Germany, Eurowings and Lufthansa dominate the offering with their feeder flights to the Frankfurt and Munich hubs. According to the DLR study, this is where the biggest drop occurred: Passenger volumes in the first eight months of this year were 52 percent below the pre-Corona level. This means that Germany is at the bottom of the list in the development of domestic markets - in contrast to the countries Spain and Italy with the most domestic traffic, which each grew by seven percent in 2023.

This is good news for everyone who is calling for domestic air traffic to be stopped for environmental reasons.

The drop in Berlin traffic was most severe after the closure of Tegel Airport, which is close to the city. The new capital city airport recorded a 67 percent decrease in domestic German air traffic compared to Tegel and Schönefeld in 2019, followed by Munich (-44 percent) and Frankfurt (-32 percent). The DLR cites the significantly better accessibility of Berlin by rail as one of the reasons. According to the 2023/24 winter timetable, Deutsche Bahn's Sprinter trains only need 3:45 hours for the Munich-Berlin route, with just one stop in Nuremberg.

According to the study, the news of long queues at check-in counters and in front of security checks, the piles of suitcases, flight cancellations and delays as well as strikes have made flying in Germany increasingly unattractive in the “chaos year 2022”. The discussion about flight shame, which began before the pandemic, also seems to have changed attitudes to flying in Germany more than anywhere else in Europe.

Unlike France, Germany cannot do without domestic flights in the foreseeable future. In the neighboring country, the railway's own high-speed network has led to the discontinuation of short-haul flights between cities that can be reached in less than 2.5 hours using TGV connections.

In Germany, even the railways rely on planes. Arno Luik learned this from Deutsche Bahn employees in 2020, as he writes in the foreword to the paperback edition of his book “Damage in the Overhead Line”. “Almost every day, no joke, the railway flew locomotive drivers back and forth high over Germany, from Hamburg to Munich... They were sent through the air to keep the train running on the ground, to fill in for missing train drivers, and to somehow bring stranded trains to their destination. Farewell to ecology." The staff shortage has increased since then.

From a global perspective, global air traffic continues to show signs of unbridled growth. In the end, the DLR analysis predicts for the future: "The number of passengers will triple by 2050."

Sources: German Institute for Aerospace, Aviation Press Club, Board of Airline Representatives in Germany

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