Heathrow heaving: London airport still Europe's number one

London Heathrow defended its status as Europe's busiest airport in 2012, a year when growth rates at major hubs slowed amid the debt crisis and booming cities such as Istanbul challenged more established centers like Madrid.

Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport attracted 61.6 million passengers last year for a 1.1 per cent advance, barely more than capacity-limited Heathrow's 0.9 per cent gain to 69.9 million, while numbers at third-ranked Frankfurt rose 1.9 per cent to 57.5 million. Istanbul reaped a 20 per cent jump to 44.9 million.

Europe's traditional hubs are struggling to add travelers as a sluggish economy hurts demand and rivals in the Persian Gulf grab a growing share of inter-continental transfer traffic. In 2011, Heathrow, the main base for British Airways, had increased its passenger tally 5.4 per cent, with jumps of 4.8 per cent at Charles de Gaulle and 6.5 per cent at Frankfurt.

Takeoffs and landings at Heathrow, which is owned by the former BAA Ltd and constrained by having only two runways, declined 1 per cent to 471,000, it said Jan. 14, indicating that the passenger total rose because carriers deployed bigger jets such as Airbus's A380, or that planes flew fuller.

At Charles de Gaulle, chief base for Air France, aircraft movements fell 3.1 per cent to 491,000, owner Aeroports de Paris said in a statement on Jan. 15, still 20,000 more than at Heathrow. Frankfurt, home to Lufthansa, had 482,000 flights, a 1 per cent decline, Fraport said the same day. Passenger numbers in Frankfurt will probably drop in the first quarter, the airport operator said yesterday.

Madrid slump

Among west European hubs, Amsterdam Schiphol, the No. 4, posted the strongest passenger growth at 2.6 per cent, according to a statement on its website, with the total increasing to 51 million. Movements were also higher, up 0.8 per cent to 423,000.

The biggest decline among top airports was at fifth-ranked Madrid Barajas, with the passenger total tumbling 9 per cent to 45.2 million and takeoffs and landings slumping 13 per cent.

Madrid, the hub for IAG's unprofitable Iberia unit, and Schiphol, home to Air France sister company KLM, ranked almost neck-and-neck on 49 million passengers in 2011, with the Dutch airport just 100,000 ahead. The year before that, Barajas had led, and ranked fourth in Europe.

Spain's economic decline meant that its top airport barely stayed ahead of Istanbul Ataturk, according to figures released by Paris-based ADP, which holds a 38 per cent stake in the Turkish facility's owner, TAV Airports.

Traffic in Turkey was spurred by additional flights at Turk Hava Yollari AO, or Turkish Airlines, which is emulating Emirates and other Gulf carriers in building its base into a global transfer hub. The gains follow a 16 percent increase the previous year.

The biggest investor in Heathrow, as BAA is now known, is Spanish builder Ferrovial SA, which has cut its stake to about 34 per cent following the sale of stock to Qatar Holding and China Investment Corp.