Airlines field fewer flights but carry more passengers

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The commercial aviation industry has faced difficulties in the last couple of years due to increased demand and low profit margins. Findings from a new study looking at major international airport hubss suggest airlines are adapting to this market situation by carrying more passengers on a lower number of larger planes. The trend appears to be happening worldwide, although is especially prevalent in Asia.

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Recent press reports have focused on how major airports are often exceeding capacity with an ever-larger number of passengers passing through. However, the new research draws attention to the way that airlines are adapting, by using bigger aircrafts to take on more passengers.

The study, carried out by, analysed air traffic figures at the world’s twenty busiest airports between 2005 and 2016. It revealed that on a global level, while the number of flights per year at many of the world’s largest airports has barely budged – or even decreased – the number of passengers has grown over the same period.

For instance, the study showed that at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – the world’s busiest – 980,386 flights took off in 2006. However, ten years later in 2016, that number had dropped by almost 8% to 898,356. Nevertheless, the number of passengers had increased by almost 20 million in that time (from about 84.8 million in 2006, to 104 million in 2016).

This new trend is most marked in Asia. The number of flights at major international hubs such as Dubai, Hong Kong and Beijing is almost half the total amount of flights in other airports that transport an equivalent number of passengers.

Comparing Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with Hong Kong International Airport, the difference is striking. The American airport manages almost 867.635 flights each year, while Hong Kong fields less than half that number – 411,000. Despite the much higher number of flights, Chicago flies 78 million people per year, while Hong Kong close behind, carries just over 70 million passengers.

Perhaps most strikingly, Dubai International airport, which was the fastest growing airport in 2016 by passenger number, carries an enormous 84 million passengers each year – behind Atlanta and Beijing. Nonetheless, it fields only 418,000 flights – less than half that of either Atlanta or Chicago. What’s more, as the graph below shows, hubs like Dubai carry an equivalent number of passengers per hour to some of the world’s busiest airports, yet launch far fewer individual flights.

As the chart above clearly demonstrates, certain airports – particularly those in Asia – field significantly fewer flights per hour than their counterparts in other parts of the world, and the United States in particular. Nevertheless, despite the lower number of flights, they manage to carry significantly more passengers each hour.

What might explain these differences? One likely explanation is the growth in aeroplane sizes. Today’s aircraft can carry a much greater number of passengers than in the past. For instance, Airbus’s A380 can carry up to 853 people on an all-economy seating plan, an innovation that allows

carriers to cut costs and boost operational efficiency. Airlines such as Emirates and Qantas Airways have been investing in lighter and larger aircraft that consume less fuel, which will allow them to carry more passengers, while making fewer individual flights.

Geography is another important factor. Many more flights from European and North American flights are short haul, within countries or to nearby destinations. By contrast, some of Asia’s airlines focus almost exclusively on the long-haul market.

This difference in type of flight affects the size of aeroplanes required. Middle-Eastern airlines such as Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar have used the region’s unique position to dominate the long-haul market. And, because long-haul flights depend on larger aircraft to carry more passengers in order to make a profit, airports like Dubai see much more traffic from larger crafts.

Experts have long predicted the emergence of larger planes to accommodate the growth in demand for flights. Chicago O’Hare, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Dallas International and Frankfurt all followed this trend in 2016, with a lower number of flights per day in 2016, without this affecting passenger numbers. This suggests that the trend towards larger planes, fewer flights and more passengers is here to stay.

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