A Look At Air Traffic Waves In Europe Amid COVID-19

The COVID pandemic has done more to disrupt travel and tourism than any other event in our history. From rock bottom in the spring, traffic has slowly been creeping back up across the continent through the summer months. We take a look at the traffic waves at three key destinations and how the pandemic has affected airline strategy this year.

Ryanair
Let’s take a look at how European air traffic evolved over the year. Photo: Getty Images

Tracking the flights in Europe

Spire Aviation provides global flight tracking data powered by satellites. Thanks to its thorough data collection, it has been able to share the picture of aviation in Europe over the course of the summer season. The company investigated three key tourism destinations to see how the pandemic had affected air travel over the course of 2020.

Data was analyzed by Spire Aviation at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and at El Pratt Airport in Barcelona. Usually some of the busiest airports in Europe, traffic figures fell off a cliff as the COVID pandemic grounded flights across the continent.

Europe air traffic analysis
Image: Spire Aviation

In April, the number of unique aircraft seen arriving at these airports dropped by an average of 90% between January and April this year. As borders began to open up again, all three destinations showed signs of recovery, although to varying degrees per location.

Paris, the busiest of the three destinations pre-pandemic, added 3.5 times the unique aircraft in August than it had in April. However, Rome and Barcelona both had an average of 10 times more aircraft flying in the summer peak.

To further deepen our understanding of the traffic figures, Spire Aviation looked at the total number of flights at the three airports during these periods. Again, all three airports suffered around a 90% drop in total flights between January and April.

Europe air traffic analysis
Image: Spire Aviation

Interestingly, the recovery in terms of the number of flights was much better at the Spanish airport than at the other two. Barcelona handled 17 times more flights in August than it had in April, while Paris was up 700% and Rome 500%.

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Case study: Ryanair

While it’s interesting to see how the pandemic’s peaks and troughs varied across these key airports, there’s a lot to be learned from looking deeper at an airline’s strategy. Low-cost carrier Ryanair was the biggest airline in Europe by passenger numbers last year, so makes for a good case study.

As you might expect, between January and April, Ryanair’s network shrunk significantly. From the 176 destinations it served in January, by April, it was flying to just 26. Not only did its network shrink, its capacity reduced too, with 95% fewer flights taking off. During this time, it focused only on high passenger traffic routes connecting major cities, disrupting its usual point-to-point strategy.

By August, Ryanair was keen to secure as much of the weak summer holiday traffic as possible, laying on flights and opening new routes to accommodate those passengers willing to take a trip. By August 7th, it flew to 183 destinations, seven more than it flew to in January.

Daily flights had ticked up too, but not to the levels seen pre-COVID. On August 7th, 1,777 flights took place, compared to just 99 on April 3rd. However, this was still some way behind the 2,381 daily flights that occurred on January 3rd this year.

Europe air traffic analysis
Image: Spire Aviation

Examining Europe’s air traffic trends can help us paint a picture of the pandemic’s impact on travel and tourism this year. While the uptick in flights and traffic in August is a positive sign, there’s no guarantee those planes were well loaded with passengers. Now, with the second wave taking hold in Europe and lockdowns proceeding at an alarming rate, we’ll likely see those figures plunge over the winter once more.

Did you take any flights this year? Who did you go with? Let us know in the comments.

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