Small Airports Vital to European Regions

With EU rules on regional airports up for review by 2010, officials from Dutch, Polish and Spanish regions are making the case for partnerships with low-cost airlines, which have created jobs and mobility between far-flung parts of Europe.

"Regional airports are engines for economic growth and they can spur contacts with remote regions in Europe," Harry Dijksma, deputy governor of the Dutch Flevoland region said at a conference organised by the Assembly of European Regions (AER), an independent network of 270 regions in and outside the EU.

He noted that by 2020, more than half of all passengers travelling in Europe will be using low-cost airlines and pressed for EU regulations that "strike a balance between market protection and market freedom."

The Flevoland region hopes to get approval from the Hague to develop a regional airport for low-cost flights in Lelystad, which would also take over some of the traffic from the congested Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. Passengers would need around 40 minutes by train to reach Amsterdam from Lelystad.

The Spanish region of Valencia – home to an important ceramic tiles industry – highlighted the importance of regional business people being able to have direct flight connections to their customers or EU policy makers. A regional airport in Castellon helps towards this aim and has also contributed to the success story of a football club from Viarreal, a town of only 40,000 inhabitants.

For the region of Lower Silesia in south-western Poland, the development of the local airport in Wroclaw, serving both low cost and national airlines, led to a five-fold increase in passengers: from 300,000 passengers a year in 2004 to 1.5 million in 2008.

Low-cost flights from Wroclaw to Ireland, the UK, Germany, Turkey, Egypt or Spain meant that many Poles who could not afford to travel the long distance to Warsaw and an expensive regular ticket to these destinations were suddenly able to do so.

"The current EU guidelines only apply to airports with more than 5 million passengers a year, but we worry that the authorities in Warsaw might pass a law which will go below this threshold," Jaroslaw Sztucki, vice-president of the Copernicus airport in Wroclaw, said.

EU guidelines on state aid for regional airports were drafted in 2005, a year after the EU executive fined Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair (RYAAY) for receiving what it called illegal state aid from the Belgian region of Wallonia, when it developed the airport near Charleroi for its low cost flights.

But in December last year, the commission's decision was overruled by the EU court of first instance, who stated that the regional aid received by Ryanair was part of normal economic activity.

"The mere fact that that activity is carried out in the public sector does not mean that it can be categorized as the exercise of public authority," judges said.

To AER secretary general Klaus Klipp, the commission's ruling in the Charleroi case seemed to ignore the fact that "no highways, railways or airports were ever built without taxpayer's money, but then nobody complained about illegal state aid."

"The European Commission must ensure that its revisions to the guidelines support, rather than hinder, the development of such assets with a minimum of administrative burdens," Mr Klipp added.

Consultations for the review have not started yet and they don't "necessarily" imply a revision of the guidelines, Fabio Pirotta, a spokesman for the EU commission told this website.