The ongoing evolution of airports

25 May 2023

Partnering with the private sector helps airports meet growing capacity needs by unlocking new sources of capital to invest in upgraded and expanded infrastructure.

Commercial air traffic has almost recovered from the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global passenger traffic is now at 88 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and strong demand pushed international load factors – a measure of how full passenger aircraft are – above pre-pandemic levels in March this year.1 Both business aviation and air freight were less severely affected.2 3

Global air passenger traffic

Source: IATA

The speed of the industry’s recovery serves to highlight the indispensable role of aviation in today’s world. By connecting communities, enabling tourism, facilitating international trade flows and creating employment, it is key to the functioning of the global economy and a contributor to long-term economic growth.

At the industry’s core is the need for high-quality airport infrastructure that both enables the movement of people and cargo and acts as a catalyst for socio-economic development at a local, regional and national level.


Benefits of private capital

For much of the 20th century, the world’s airports were publicly owned and operated.4 As commercial air travel became more affordable in the 1980s and demand started to grow, so too did the need for capital investment to upgrade and enable airports to respond to expanding market needs. With public finances constrained, governments sought to leverage private capital and expertise to help prepare the sector for the future.

The UK Government’s sale of the British Airports Authority (BAA) in 1987 initiated a period of significant structural change for global aviation that saw airports and other related infrastructure around the world either sold or leased on a long-term basis to private owners/operators. By 2020, almost a fifth of the world’s airports had seen some form of private sector participation (rising to over half for the busiest 100 airports by passenger traffic).5

Private sector involvement, together with well-designed economic regulation, has unlocked new sources of capital – allowing significant investment in upgraded and expanded airport infrastructure to meet growing capacity needs. Overall, this has contributed to improved passenger experiences, expanded connectivity, and fostered greater economic development around airport locations.6

According to research conducted by industry association Airports Council International (ACI) in 2018, airports with private sector participation invested 14 per cent more in capital expenditure than public airports.7

Where direct public subsidy has been removed, the link between airport charges and the actual cost of operating and developing airport facilities has been reinstated. A degree of market forces has been introduced, incentivising competition between airports and contributing to innovation, greater operational efficiencies8 and additional value and choice for passengers.9

Broadening the revenue base

Most hub and regional airports exercising a degree of monopoly pricing power in their catchment areas continue to operate under economic regulation to ensure airport charges remain proportionate while expected service and investment levels are maintained. However, a shift in many markets from ‘single till’ to ‘dual till’ regulatory models – in which aeronautical activities are separated from non-aeronautical activities when calculating airport charges – has encouraged airport owners/operators to diversify their potential revenue streams and allocate investment more efficiently.

Airport revenue sources

Previously untapped commercial opportunities – both airside and within the broader airport vicinity – have been developed as a result.

Retail opportunities, such as parking, shopping, dining, car rental and similar passenger-facing services – often underdeveloped while airports are in public ownership or operated under single till regulatory frameworks - have been expanded.10 As well as delivering a much-improved passenger experience, this model can incentivise the development of non-aeronautical revenues which can be reinvested more efficiently into required airport infrastructure improvements, reducing the need to raise additional capital.11

In Europe, for example, private sector involvement has over time improved passenger services, delivered higher-quality facilities than public airports, and brought greater success in attracting airlines and developing airport connectivity.10

Expanding a Northern European gateway

Starting in 2005, Macquarie Asset Management-managed funds acquired a controlling stake in Copenhagen Airport and with partners embarked on a DKK 10 billion investment program to upgrade and expand its operational and commercial infrastructure. A new terminal, security, and baggage facilities were built, along with a low-cost pier and capacity enhancements to facilitate long-haul aircraft. Over the 12-year period of ownership, passenger numbers grew by 45 per cent to 29 million and the Airport became the largest in the Nordics.12

Investing in Sydney Airport 

In 2002, the Australian Government completed the privatisation of the country’s largest airport by traffic volume, Sydney Airport (which today accounts for around 40 per cent of Australia’s international passenger movements13 and 45 per cent of international air freight14), to a Macquarie Group-led consortium, under a 99-year lease arrangement. In the two decades following, over $A3bn of investment was made to improve capacity, efficiency and the customer experience, allowing the airport to increase service levels, enhance safety and security, deliver environmental improvements and meet growing demand.15,16

Connecting Tasmania to opportunity 

Infrastructure investment and the improvements it delivers can help expand network connectivity by attracting new services and growing existing ones, including more profitable international routes. In turn, this can help support the long-term financial sustainability of an airport and have a significant impact on the regional economy in which it is located.

In 2007, funds managed by Tasplan Super and Macquarie Asset Management acquired stakes in Hobart Airport. Since that time more than $A150 million has been invested in the airport to better connect Tasmania’s economy with mainland Australia and the world. This sustained investment saw total passenger numbers increase by more than 50 per cent, from 1.7 million in 2008 to over 2.7 million in 2019, making Hobart one of the fastest growing Australian airports. The airport’s route network also grew, further strengthening Tasmania’s tourism industry, with domestic destinations doubling from 3 to 6 and future international connectivity facilitated by the completion of a 500-metre runway extension.

Fostering regional economic growth

Airports often have a unique opportunity to position themselves as centres of economic growth due to the quality of their transport (both air and ground) connections, proximity to metropolitan areas, and the existing commercial relationships they have with a range of industries and sectors.

This, according to Arup, the global engineering consultancy, has given rise to airports as ‘regional economic accelerators’ and them putting the establishment of airport economic ‘hubs’ at the heart of commercial development plans, working collaboratively with local stakeholders to become drivers of social and economic benefit.17

Through the development of commercial facilities – such as office space, warehousing, and specialised logistics facilities – in and around airfields, airports have become more strategic about the role they can play in facilitating economic development and as long-term enablers of local employment.

Unlocking the potential of a European transport and logistics hub

In 2004, Macquarie Asset Management was selected by the Belgian Government to partner in the ownership and long-term development of Brussels Airport. Over its 15-year involvement, Macquarie oversaw more than €1 billion of capital investment, transforming the passenger experience and transforming the airport’s capacity, service and sustainability. The airport also made diversification a strategic priority, increasing the focus on innovation, partnerships and the further development of the aviation ecosystem. This involved the delivery of world-class cargo facilities and a new airport business district to further its position as a logistics hub – attracting other companies to its strategic location and facilities.

Creating jobs and economic opportunities in Queensland and New South Wales

Macquarie has been managing an investment in Gold Coast Airport on Australia’s east coast since 2018, facilitating investment to support the renovation and expansion of one of Australia’s largest regional airports. With about $A500 million worth of works delivered, underway or in the pipeline at the airport, including a $A260 million terminal expansion project, it is delivering improved services and creating jobs and economic opportunities for the south Queensland and northern New South Wales regions.18 By doing so, the airport is attracting new international and domestic flight connections, facilitating a growth in tourism, and playing a part in the wider infrastructure readiness ahead of the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brisbane.

At the regional level, airports can play an important role as engines of socio-economic development,” says Amanda McMillan, Senior Managing Director at Macquarie Asset Management. “By improving connectivity and facilitating the inflow of goods, commerce, and tourism from both domestic and international locations, they can stimulate economic growth and deliver commercial potential and additional employment at the local level.

“Working with experienced private sector partners enables airports to access funding that can be used to invest in new facilities and diversify revenue - such as through expanded retail, new commercial space and additional ancillaries – which were previously untapped under public management,” she adds.

Together with our partners and Gold Coast Airport, we have supported management to make more efficient and effective use of their airport infrastructure, address capacity issues and improve the customer experience with new and expanded facilities, and to prepare for future passenger growth with additional capacity that allows them to attract new carriers and routes.”

Amanda McMillan
Senior Managing Director
Macquarie Asset Management                              

Investing in a sustainable future

Decarbonising air travel presents a unique and significant set of challenges and airports have a leading role to play in reducing the industry’s carbon emissions. Alongside commitments to become net zero for those under their direct control (Scope 1 and Scope 2), they can help facilitate – through investment in new technology and infrastructure – a reduction in the indirect carbon emissions (Scope 3) from aircraft and ground transportation, for example.19

In the short- to medium-term, this will include initiatives to enable aircraft fleet efficiencies and investment in sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), before supporting longer-term solutions that replace the use of jet kerosene entirely become commercially viable – be that electric aircraft charging or hydrogen refuelling facilities.20 Both phases will require significant financial investment – estimates are that an annual average investment of $US175 billion will be needed from now until 2050 to decarbonise the sector – and fundamentally change airport infrastructure.21

Simon Geere, Chief Executive Officer of Farnborough Airport, believes early adoption of SAF within the business aviation segment could offer an early roadmap for the broader aviation industry to follow.

“The cost of fuel is generally a relatively small part of the overall investment decision when choosing to take a business aviation flight,” Geere explains. “Subsequently, business aviation passengers are more likely to pay a premium to use SAF to reduce their overall flight emissions when compared with the commercial aviation segment.”

To accelerate the uptake of SAF the whole industry needs to come together, and airports certainly have an important role to play. By making SAF more readily available, whether through investment in related infrastructure or incentivising its use, airports can help to create the demand conditions needed to increase supply and reduce the costs of SAF further.”

Simon Geere
Chief Executive Officer
Farnborough Airport                                

Backing London's business aviation gateway

In 2019, a fund managed by Macquarie Asset Management acquired Farnborough Airport in the UK and began working with it to deliver essential capacity enhancements while reducing its environmental footprint. With Macquarie’s support, Farnborough Airport has set out ambitious sustainability plans. Building on its legacy as the world’s first business aviation airport to achieve carbon neutral status,22 Farnborough Airport committed to achieving net zero by 2030 for all emissions under its direct (Scope 1) and indirect (Scope 2) control. The airport also began exploring opportunities to help airport users reduce their emissions, including the rollout of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and schemes to accelerate the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel.

Looking ahead

As current trends indicate will happen once again, over the long term, air traffic recovers from shock events and returns to its previous growth level.

Over the medium to long term, continued global interconnectivity and increasing economic expansion will lead to further air traffic demand, especially in emerging economies.

Global aviation growth (1959 – 2012)

Source: ICAO

The ability of airports to adapt to this long-term trend, remain resilient in the face of future shocks, and play a central role in economic development will require them to enhance their capacity and become diversified businesses with sources of income that extend beyond the charges levied on the airlines and passengers.

  1. Air Travel Growth Continues in March’, IATA, 4 May 2023
  2. Air Cargo Market Analysis: January 2023’, IATA, 7 March 2023
  3. Murdo Morrison, ‘Business aviation as usual: Will 2023 see a return to pre-pandemic patterns?’, FlightGlobal, 21 December 2022
  4. Laurent Belsie, ‘Privatizing Infrastructure: Evidence from Airports’, National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2023
  5. Policy Brief: Creating fertile grounds for private investment in airports’, Airports Council International, 19 June 2018
  6. Privatization has proven successful in developing airport infrastructure to cope with traffic growth’, Airports Council International, 19 September 2018
  7. Session: Creating fertile grounds for private investment in airports’, Airports Council International, 19 June 2018
  8. Olivier Jankovec, ‘Of airport privatization and airline fantasies’, Airports Council International, 1 April 2018
  9. Airport Competition’, IATA, November 2013
  10. ‘Macquarie Airports: A world class airport portfolio’, Macquarie Airports Management Limited, September 2013
  11. Worldwide Air Transport Conference (Sixth meeting): Economics of airports’, IATA, 2013
  12. Group Annual Report 2005 / 2017, Copenhagen Airports A/S
  13. Airport traffic data’, The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, 27 April 2023
  14. Kingsford Smith Airport’, Transport for NSW
  15. Sydney Airport Master Plan 2033’, Sydney Airport
  16. Letter to Senate Economics References Committee’, Sydney Airport, 30 January 2015
  17. The value of airports as economic regions’, Arup
  18. Gold Coast Airport’s $260m expansion ready to welcome world travelers’, Gold Coast Airport, 11 November 2022
  19. Policy briefing’, Airports Council International, 2022,
  20. 'Aviation’, International Energy Agency, September 2022
  21. Michael Halaby, Christian Pho Duc, Clyde Hutchinson, Brian Marrinan, ‘Financing aviation decarbonisation’, ICAO Environmental Report 2022, ICAO
  22. 'Airport Accreditation Scheme', Airports Council International