Every passenger that arrives at Béziers-Cap d’Agde costs French taxpayers money despite the airport’s lucrative contract with Ryanair, according to a report by the Occitanie chamber of accounts.
Ryanair carries around 200,000 passengers per year to Béziers-Cap d’Agde, mainly coming from the UK, Belgium and Germany.
The deal with the low-cost airline, which has flown to the airport for 15 years and is the only operator that flies there, comes under scrutiny in the report.
The choice of smaller airports to rely on low cost airlines to bring tourists to their regions, has been problematic for several years, and has become more difficult with fewer passenger numbers since the Covid-19 pandemic.
€20 spent per passenger
The airport is run as a syndicat mixte, a collaborative body set up between the local communes and the region of Occitanie.
It has been reliant on public money for some time. In 2017-2019, the airport operated at an annual loss of €4.7million, requiring €5.1million each year from taxpayers, which amounts to €20.69 per passenger. In the years following the Covid-19 crisis, the situation is likely to have been worse.
It is relatively common in France for smaller airports to receive funding from the region. While €20 per passenger may seem like a lot, it pales in comparison to the €327 per passenger that Angoulême spent in 2015.
However, the use of public money by the syndicat mixte to effectively subsidise the activity of a private company has led Air France to file a complaint against it for unfair competition, which is currently being investigated by the European Commission.
The result of this investigation “could put the future of the airport in doubt”, according to the report.
The European Commission has a history of rulings against Ryanair, forcing it to repay Pau and Nimes Airports a total of €9.6m of taxpayers’ money in 2017.
‘In a fragile position’
This pending investigation, the annual deficit and the airport’s structural debt, have called on the Occitanie chamber of accounts to question the management of the airport and even go so far as question its viability in a region where there are five other airports within 100km, including Toulouse and Montpellier.
The airport’s deal with Ryanair is described in the report as lopsided, with “highly beneficial financial conditions” given to the low cost airline, including the unilateral right to withdraw from the agreement with no notice.
It is also not bringing enough visitors. In order to run at a profit, the airport would need one million passengers a year, the report says. Its current capacity is for 400,000 passenger transits per year.
In its defence, the airport says on its website that it brings €65 million to the region per year and 600 jobs.
The Occitanie chamber of accounts acknowledges that the average tourist from the UK spends €610, but concludes that “the real economic benefits are difficult to evaluate.”