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Mid-sized French airports ‘too reliant on cheap flights’, report finds

Air France’s withdrawal and focus on train travel are cited as threats to regional airports like Bergerac and La Rochelle

In 2019, there were 73 airports in France, compared to 13 airports in Germany, 28 in the UK and 30 in Spain Pic: Dan Shachar / Shutterstock

Mid-sized French airports are often very dependent on a few low-cost airlines and are suffering from competition from nearby sites, the national auditing authority has warned.

France notoriously has a greater number of airports than its neighbours. 

In 2019, there were 73, of which 41 received between 10,000 and three million commercial passengers. This compares to 13 airports in Germany, 28 in the UK and 30 in Spain.

These ‘intermediate airports’ are smaller than international airports but larger than local airfields, and include those in Strasbourg, Bergerac, La Rochelle and Montpellier.

The south and west of France are particularly well-served. Many of these airports mainly serve tourists, while others provide a link to isolated areas, or focus on freight, for example.

Direct competition from nearby airports

The Cour des Comptes report says: “Weakened by the development of high-speed railways and the progressive withdrawal of Air France, they are often very dependent on a few low-cost airlines. Sometimes, they also face direct competition from nearby airports.”

The Covid pandemic worsened the crisis, with Air France reducing its number of domestic flights by 40% in 2021. The rise in working from home has also led to fewer business trips.

Airports dependent on low-cost airlines risk losing the majority of their traffic if those airlines stop running flights, often at short notice. 

Dinard in Brittany, for example, stopped running commercial flights in 2021 after Ryanair pulled out.

Brexit, too, has had an impact in the west and south west, at airports such as La Rochelle, Carcassonne and Limoges, which “are between 50% and 90% dependent on British clients”, said Nicolas Paulissen, executive director of the Union des Aéroports Français (UAF).

Passengers will switch to new rail connections

France recently banned flights where the journey can also be completed by train in less than two-and-a-half hours. In practice, however, only three routes have been banned: Orly-Bordeaux, Orly-Lyon, and Orly-Nantes.

The Cour des Comptes warns that new rail connections would further take business away from airports. 

It is estimated that the future line between Toulouse and Dax, for example, will attract 10 million more train passengers by 2032, of whom 16% will have switched over from air travel.

Read more: Our French retirement haven is stuck between motorway and new TGV

Read more: Boost for southern France as launch dates set for new ‘TGV’ routes

France-wide vision needed for air travel

The intermediary airports are mostly run by regional, departmental or city authorities, and rely on public grants. They “face the significant fixed costs (safety, security) associated with commercial air travel, without receiving a sufficient number of passengers to benefit, like the largest airports, from substantial non-aeronautical revenue” (such as retail), according to the report.

“Decentralisation has created a situation where none of the public actors has an overall vision or responsibility for the network of airports.”

The Cour des Comptes made a number of recommendations, including the creation of an ‘airport observatory’ to adopt a more global perspective, along with a plan to cut carbon at each airport.

Holidaymakers could lose out

Mr Paulissen told The Connexion: “It is true that airports of less than 700,000 passengers have greater difficulties balancing the books.” 

He said Covid had exacerbated difficulties that already existed for many of them.

“However, we can consider them to be tools for the socio-economic development of the region, and that the public money goes towards this regional development.”

For this reason, he does not expect any airports to close completely, but holidaymakers could still lose out. 

“We do need to reflect on their role. Not all airports are destined to receive commercial flights. If one airport has Ryanair flights, why should another that’s 50km away do so?”

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