Airport recovery, infrastructure investment, and net zero

Luis Felipe de Oliveira by Luis Felipe de Oliveira | Jul 14, 2021

The arrival of summer has marked a new chapter in the pandemic – many travellers are starting to take advantage of the newfound mobility by reuniting with family and friends, returning to old stamping grounds, and finally booking those landmark trips we have spent over a year wistfully dreaming of.

I am writing to you from Europe where I have been travelling between Athens, Rome, and Geneva for some business meetings as well as enjoying some quality time-off with my family. I must admit it is really nice to finally be back on the road again and to be able to reconnect with friends and colleagues over a delicious meal and to toast to new beginnings with a nice glass of wine. Months of isolation have forced us to be creative in how we maintain our social and business connections – we were able to shift to online meetings thanks to Zoom and Teams, however there is no denying the value and effectiveness of face-to-face meetings.


I was particularly excited to experience what travelling in the new normal would look like after being fully vaccinated, and to test out how different countries are coping with the churning array of travel rules and regulations.

International travel, suffice to say, looks very different than it did two years ago. If you are taking to the skies this summer, or planning a trip for later this year, I would highly recommend allowing some extra time when arriving to the airport.  The terminals are slowly starting to get busier and check-in process is likely to take longer than usual, especially considering the complexities involving verifying traveller’s immunization statuses.

Despite some of the newer challenges, we are definitely reaching a tipping point in the COVID-19 pandemic, a crossroads where optimism for a sustained recovery has met the reticence of governments to take a risk-based but proactive approach to easing travel restrictions and lockdowns.

This is not to say that the crisis is over, however.

In ACI World’s latest Advisory Bulletin: The impact of COVID-19 on the airport business and path to recovery, the lasting adverse impact of the COVID-19 crisis is forecast to remove an additional five billion passengers by the end of this year compared to the pre-COVID-19 forecast.

Compared to 2019 levels this is expected to be -47.3% by year end with domestic passenger traffic recovering faster than international traffic. Globally, domestic traffic will continue the recovery started in 2020 to reach close to 3.3 billion passengers by the end of 2021 (61.4% of 2019 levels).

Linked to traffic reductions, ACI World estimates that, globally, airports will suffer the reduction of more than $108 billion (figures in US dollars) in revenue by the end of the year, down by more than half of expectations (-54.6%). It is expected that each quarter of 2021 will show improvements compared to the previous one, moving from a decline of -71.4% in the first quarter of 2021 to a decline of -37.2% in the fourth quarter. 

But there are plenty of reason for optimism as vaccinations continue, travel restrictions are slowly eased, and more passengers are expected to return to travel in the second half of the year.

Despite the slower than expected first half of 2021, ACI World expects global passenger traffic to recover to 2019 levels by the end of 2023 which will be mainly driven by the recovery of domestic passenger traffic but dampened by a slower recovery of international travel.

Returning to the trajectory of long-term growth

We see that our industry is recovering and, slowly but surely we can return the pathway of long-term growth that we were on before the pandemic.

This is contingent on the development of infrastructure which will need increased airport capital investment in new and optimized existing infrastructure, reasonable policies for the use of slots, and developments improving the economic, social, and environmental footprint of airports.

We recently published a new study – The Global Outlook of Airport Capital Expenditure – Meeting Sustainable Development Goals and Future Air Travel Demand – which shows the airport industry’s current financial shortfall poses significant challenges to the modernizing of infrastructure to improve sustainability and resilience which will be required if passenger demand into the future is to be met.

In normal times, addressing the growth of passenger demand in the face of global airport capacity constraints already poses a significant challenge, but the pandemic has dramatically reduced airport revenues, adding even greater challenges to meeting long-term capacity needs.

Attaining growth and net zero carbon together

Our recovery and quest to return the industry to its pathway of growth and reconnect the world must be done with sustainability and targeting net zero carbon emissions.

The sustainability of the whole aviation sector is crucial for the present and future of the industry, it is our passport to a return to growth, and the industry has invested billions in measures and practices which have made significant progress in reducing its environmental impact.

During 2020, we set out to work with all ACI Regions and our membership globally to establish a net zero goal at a global level that airports can commit to reaching – we published the ACI Long Term Carbon Goal for the world’s airports in June.

Governments will play an important role in supporting and incentivizing recovery and to mitigate the risks of falling short on Sustainable Development Goals linked to airports.

This support could take the form of the development and access to renewal energy sources, reducing electricity purchase through energy efficiency measures, improving access to green financing instruments, adapting airport infrastructure to serve alternative fuel aircraft, or fostering the development of negative emission technologies.

Airports are not alone, aviation is an ecosystem

Airports cannot do this alone.

The wider aviation community must come together, and airports must also count on the support of governments and key stakeholders to address, minimize, and mitigate the environmental impacts of continued aviation growth over the long term.

Airports are an integral part of the response to climate change but each airport, country, and region is different. The long-term carbon goal is ambitious and aspirational and intended to be adopted by individual airports in accordance with local conditions, with the support of local governments, to a timeline towards net zero by 2050 that works for them.

ACI also believes that aviation is crucial for the global economic recovery from the impact and effects of COVID-19 as the industry’s global economic impact – direct, indirect, induced, and catalytic – contributes trillions to world gross domestic product, supports millions of jobs, and fosters sustainable development.

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Director General, ACI World
Luis Felipe joined ACI World as Director General in June 2020 bringing with him vast experience in commercial and technical aviation. He successfully led the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA) between October 2017 and May 2020, promoting positive change in the organization. Prior to joining ALTA, Luis Felipe served as World Fuel Services’ Vice President Supply Development for Latin America and Caribbean where he was responsible for improving World Fuel’s aviation fuel business in the region. He is a Chemical Engineer and graduated from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and has a postgraduate qualification in Finance from the University of São Paulo, an MBA from Dom Cabral Foundation in São Paulo, and Post MBA from Kellogg University in Chicago.
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