The Battle For The Next European Hub Airport

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Eastern and Southern Europe are ripe for a new hub airport. With airports proposed and, in some cases, even under development in many nations in the area, the race is on to build the next great hub airport to rival those in the Gulf. But who’s in the lead? Let’s find out.

Dubai airport
Can any European airport rise up to challenge the Gulf hubs? Photo: Emirates

Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) boast the highest growth in passenger traffic of any region in Europe. As such, we’re seeing big expansion in the region, particularly among airlines. LOT Polish is aiming to rival Middle Eastern carriers in the future, and Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air seems capable of turning a profit even when other airlines are struggling.

Previously we’ve noted how Eastern Europe is becoming the next aviation hotspot, and how nations like Armenia are tenaciously persistent in their efforts to step up to the opportunities the future offers. Their interesting geographical location coupled with the massive growth taking place right now puts Eastern and Sothern Europe in a prime position to become hubs to rival Dubai. But where will be next big hub be?

Growth in connecting traffic

Currently, all the best connecting hubs in Europe are in the west of the continent. In the most recent ACI Europe Airport Industry Connectivity Report, the top four airports for direct connections, as measured by passenger traffic, were Frankfurt, Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles de Gaulle and London Heathrow.  However, this is not the whole picture.

When you look at growth in connecting traffic, a trend starts to emerge. Frankfurt had 0% growth between 2018 and 2019, while Schiphol grew by just 0.2%. Charles de Gaulle did better at 3.2% while Heathrow sagged at just 0.3% growth.

Other airports are bucking this trend with solid connecting traffic growth. Some of the best performers between 2018 and 2019 included Antalya (+22.7%), Kyiv (17.7%) and Krakow (16.5%). In fact, as we move into the smaller airports, such as those dealing with under five million passengers a year, there’s some startling growth going on.

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In just the last year, connecting traffic has increased by a staggering 798.6% at Targu Mures airport. Since 2014, Ohrid has had similar growth, of 750.9%. Over a ten year period, Nis has grown in connecting traffic by 633.3% and Osijek by 799.4%. But where are these places? I’ll give you a clue, they’re not in the west!

Growth airports
Many of the airports with the biggest growth are in the East and South of Europe. Image: GCMap

Eastern and southern Europe have a unique attraction for connecting passengers. In a similar geographic position to the Middle East, carriers here can bridge the gap between east and west, connecting passengers from far-flung locations via hub airports in their home countries.

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The airports vying to become the next big hub

A number of countries and airports have already noted the opportunity presented to them. As such, there are several countries purporting to be bringing us the ‘next superhub’ in Europe. Let’s see who’s in the running.

Turkey was the first nation to throw its hat into the ring to create Europe’s newest hub airport. Istanbul’s new airport opened for business in October last year, although it’s still ramping up capacity and will continue to do so until 2028. Its launch capacity was for 90m passengers a year, but when fully finished it should be capable of handling 200m.

An overview of the new Istanbul Airport
An overview of the new Istanbul Airport. Image: Istanbul Airport

In preparation for the opening, Turkish Airlines moved its entire operation from Ataturk to the new airport in just 45 hours. Simple Flying’s Paul took a trip through the airport in February this year; check out his review for some insider info.

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In Poland, Warsaw Chopin Airport is just about bursting at the seams. As such, Poland is planning for a brand new airport, that they hope will become the next super hub for east to west connections. Named Warsaw Solidarity Airport, it is planned to start operating in 2027, if they can raise the estimated $10bn required to build it.

Warsaw Solidarity
A concept for Warsaw Solidarity. Image: Chapman Taylor

Lithuania doesn’t want to miss out on the fun and have apparently been mulling building a mega airport of their own too. In response to increased connecting traffic at Vilnius, the government of the nation is considering a large hub airport in between the country’s two existing airports at Vilnius and Kaunas. However, this is very much in its infancy and has yet to get beyond the boardroom brainstorm stage.

Vilnius airport
Vilnius has experienced a tenfold increase in widebody aircraft. Image: Wikimedia

Just this week, a new contender has emerged as vying for the hub airport spot. CAPA’s Blue Swan reports that VINCI Airports have been commissioned to develop Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla airport into a more competitive location. With investment pegged at 730m Euros ($826m), the concessionaire has been tasked with growing capacity by 15m passengers per annum for the life of the contract.

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VINCI say this will make “Belgrade the future hub in southeast Europe”. However, CAPA warns that it’s still far enough north to have to compete with fast-growing Vienna and established Budapest, as much as it would with Sarajevo, Zagreb and Sofia.

So who’s winning?

Right now, Istanbul’s new airport is the furthest along in terms of development, as it’s the only one that’s got further than the paper-based stage. However, it’s not all been plain sailing, and there are still some questions over that fog issue which could prove damaging if it starts disrupting flights.

Istanbul Airport
Istanbul Airport has had a problem already. Photo: Istanbul Airport.

For now, the playing field is still open, and new ideas are coming forward all the time. The success of any proposed hub airport will come down not only to speed and quality of construction but also to the airline partners they have on board. Strong airlines with solid growth strategies and the cashflow to back them up could put any airport on the map, in just the way Emirates did for Dubai.

Where do you think the next big hub airport will be? Let us know in the comments.

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