Airports: what changes in the last 20 years?

At a time when the construction of the new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes is still arousing controversy, a report* commissioned by the High Commission for Civil Aviation (Conseil Supérieur de l’Aviation Civile - CSAC) takes stock of how the French airport network has developed. Its conclusions are highly instructive…

The first lesson we can draw from the report can be expressed by two figures: “The number of passengers passing through the airports of mainland France increased from 90 million in 1994 to 164 million in 2014”, explains Laurent Terral, the co-author of the report and a researcher at IFSTTAR’s City, Mobility and Transport Laboratory (LVMT). The main factor behind this has been the dramatic rise in international traffic, which alone has been responsible for 93.3% of this increase. But the major trends at work are not always what one would expect. To give one example, although the Parisian airports still attract more than 50% of traffic this percentage has been falling in the last decade due to competition from their provincial counterparts whose contribution to the increase in traffic increased from 40 % in 1994-2004 to 56 % in 2004-2014.

Almose twice the volume of traffic… but some disparities

Nevertheless, the picture differs greatly from one airport to another with regard to increased traffic, budgetary equilibrium and market (general public or private business flights), for example. In addition, in the last 20 years air traffic has tended to become concentrated in ten or so airports each handling more than 3 million passengers a year. “But this does not exclude some local successes such as Carcassonne and Bergerac, which also represents a genuine change”, Laurent Terral adds. According to the report, it is very difficult for an airport to achieve budgetary equilibrium with fewer than 500,000 passengers a year… and simply impossible under 200,000.

The authors have also identified a large number of factors that explain the current situation with regard to airports: the reorganisation of passenger flows brought about by low-cost companies, the decentralisation policy pursued by the State since 2005, competition from the TGV and motorways, the reduction in state support, etc. Nevertheless, mainland France is still well connected to the airport network - most areas are less than two hours away from an airport which operates flights to an intercontinental hub. There are still some airports with low levels of traffic which, in the authors’ view, could become viable with a revival of tourism. More broadly, the report makes a series of recommendations, for example, to help airports become more competitive and regions optimise the country’s airport network, and to provide a better understanding of public and private management methods.

Some unanswered questions

Ultimately, this report will help local stakeholders make decisions about the future of their airports. “But many questions relating to the interactions between an airport and its surrounding area remain unanswered”, Laurent Terral continues, “because, surprising as it may seem, as yet few studies have considered airports”. For example, we lack studies that could enable us to identify their impact on the planning, attractiveness and economic vitality of the areas where they are located. The LVMT researcher concludes thus: “IFSTTAR has resources on all these topics and can provide original insights”. This is a welcome proposition at a time when all France’s new super-regions are wondering how to modify their regional airport planning scheme.


* “Rapport sur le maillage aéroportuaire français”, CSAC/DGAC/CGET, 2017.