Europe's regional airports representatives from 26 countries gathered in Dubrovnik
photo credit: ACI EUROPE
Europe's regional airports representatives from 26 countries gathered in Dubrovnik
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This April, Dubrovnik hosted The ACI EUROPE Regional Airports Conference & Exhibition 2024. It is an annual event organised by the European region of the Airports Council International, the only trade association representing the world's airports. The main goal of the event is to provide a platform for Europe's regional and smaller airports to come together, discuss common challenges and share knowledge and best practices in a peer-to-peer environment. Airports Council International Europe (ACI EUROPE) is the main organiser, together with the rotating host airport, and the 2024 edition was hosted by Ruđer Bošković Airport in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik hosted close to 200 participants of the Conference from across Europe and beyond. 26 countries were represented, including EU Member States and non-EU countries such as Iceland, the UK, Albania, and even the US. The Regional Airports Conference & Exhibition is also an opportunity for airports to engage with their suppliers and business partners, who form an integral part of the ACI EUROPE Membership as ACI World Business Partners.

The delegates heard from a number of high-level speakers local to Dubrovnik and also representing international institutions, and other regional airports, including among others Viktor Šober, CEO of Ruđer Bošković Airport, Mato Franković, the Mayor of Dubrovnik, Morgan Foulkes, Deputy Director General at ACI EUROPE and Marco Pernetta, Chair of ACI EUROPE Regional Airports’ Forum & CEO at Innsbruck Airport. A special address was also delivered by the EU Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, Dubravka Šuica who incidentally comes from Dubrovnik.

The future of regional air connectivity in Europe

This year, the content of the Conference revolved around the timely theme „Regional Airports Navigating Change: Resilience, Sustainability, and Financial Viability“. The programme focused on the future of regional air connectivity in Europe and the challenges ahead, which are linked to the sector's decarbonisation - access to Sustainable Aviation Fuels and the development of zero-emission aircraft - but also crucially to financial viability and operational resilience. These topics are especially important in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 recovery in aviation sector.

As of April 2024, the European air passenger traffic has still not recovered to its pre-pandemic (2019) volumes, with far reaching impacts on financial and operational health of Europe's airports.

While the total European aviation market is set to surpass 2019’s peak this year, the picture is far from homogenous, with some larger regional airports serving popular tourist destinations far outperforming the average and the smallest regional airports (below 1 million passengers a year) still almost 40% below pre-COVID levels. Several factors propel these divergences, including:

  • Airline consolidation and the ongoing shift of intra-European capacity from network carriers to Low-Cost Carriers, with some previous network connections no longer in place
  • Aircraft availability challenges resulting in a need to make tactical network changes, retrenching from smaller regional markets
  • Typical hierarchy of recovery – similar to trends in other downturns where airline prioritise routes and airports with the largest, highest yielding markets to minimise load factor and yield risk.

The implications for the next several years for smaller regional airports are significant; caught as they are between slow and fragile revenue growth, and rapidly growing operating and capital costs. With additional costs potentially on the horizon as Fit for 55 measures start to take effect.

As such, the extension of operating aid exceptions for airports with fewer than 3 million passengers until 2027, and the possibility of further extensions or revision on the table, is seen by many as a welcome and necessary lifeline. Henrik Morch from European Commission's DG Competition gave a clear call to action for the regional airport community to engage with the Commission and to submit notifications of operating aid, in order to build a sufficient evidence base for the case for further support. Nicole Robins from Oxera Consulting LLP unveiled the latest ACI EUROPE study on the financial viability of regional airports, providing valuable data points and evidence.

Stunning Dubrovnik venues delighted the participants

The conference venue was located at the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel which offers a stunning view of the Dubrovnik Bay. It was the perfect backdrop for the first social event taking place as part of the Conference agenda – the Welcome Reception sponsored by Ruđer Bošković Airport.

For the Gala evening, Ruđer Bošković Airport brought all delegates to Culture Club Revelin, a worldclass cultural venue and night club situated in a unique 500-year-old medieval fortress located in the heart of the old city of Dubrovnik.

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