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Spain's Aena sees passenger numbers topping pre-pandemic level in 2024

MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish airport operator Aena raised its 2022 passenger traffic forecast on Wednesday and said it expected numbers to surpass pre-pandemic levels in 2024.

The company now expects passenger numbers this year to reach at least 87% of 2019 levels, up from 85% previously, helped by the return of travellers from Latin America, Chief Executive Maurici Lucena told investors on a conference call.

Aena expects 2023 traffic to reach 92% of the 275 million passengers registered in 2019, and to keep rising to reach 300 million in 2026.

"We may revise these estimates upwards in 2023," Lucena said. "In the next few years, people will be flying as much as they did before the pandemic and much more," Lucena added. More than 80% of tourists coming to Spain arrive by plane.

Lucena said passenger traffic was recovering faster than elsewhere in Europe as Spain had fewer staff issues since local labour regulations helped the company to keep its workers during the pandemic.

Aena's peers such as London's Heathrow are not seeing such a strong recovery. Britain's largest airport said in October it expected to receive 25% fewer passengers this year than in 2019 and a full recovery would take several years.

In the coming years, Aena aims to capitalise on a coronavirus-induced boom in freight logistics and plans to invest in expanding Madrid airport, Europe's fourth-largest terminal, to transform it into a larger international hub.

The company plans to invest around 2.9 billion euros ($3.0 billion) between 2022 and 2026.

As a result of the expected growth, Aena expects its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation to fully recover from the pandemic between 2024 and 2025, with all commercial revenues, income from rents from airport shops and parking, also recovering.

The company, which has not paid a dividend since 2019, intends to resume payouts at 1.37 euro per share next year, financed by 2022 earnings.

($1 = 0.9591 euros)

(Reporting by Corina Pons; Editing by Toby Chopra and Mark Potter)