The viability of several smaller airports in France, many of which focus on low-cost flights to the UK, is under the spotlight.
Regional auditors have been studying airports in their areas after issues were flagged up in June by public sector auditing body the Cour des comptes.
Reports by passengers’ organisation Fnaut have also previously flagged up large state subsidies, as high as €1,300 per passenger (Angoulême in 2012).
Fnaut spokesman François Delétraz said: “These are quite old figures now but they remain pertinent. I am not sure local taxpayers would have been happy about that.
“It comes down to political will in one region to the next to keep an airport because councils think it brings value to the economy. The question is whether it really is value for money or not.”
Angoulême has now ceased commercial flights and is used only for private and business travel, training flights and hobby flying clubs.
High safety costs but few opportunities to make money
‘Intermediate’ airports, smaller than large international airports but bigger than local airfields, are particularly under scrutiny, especially in the south-west and west.
These include Béziers-Cap d’Agde, Nîmes, la Rochelle, Tarbes, Quimper and Perpignan.
In its report, the national state auditor said 41 of France’s 73 airports are intermediate, serving between 10,000 to three million commercial passengers a year.
This is significantly more airports per capita than in almost all other EU countries.
It said intermediate airports had the high safety and security costs linked to commercial traffic but do not receive enough passengers to benefit significantly from side activities such as parking and shops.
Airports with fewer than 700,000 passengers a year were the most “economically fragile and most subject to dependency on low-cost airlines”.
They are typically owned by local councils since a decentralisation programme in the early 2000s and most rely on council funds to balance the books and make necessary investments, the Cour said.
Noting increased train use and airports’ carbon footprint, “the map of the airports should change’’, it advised.
One problem is there is not a national body with overall charge of the location of airports.
Béziers airport paid Ryanair millions of euros in subsidies
Béziers, which has 200,000 passengers a year, faces “strong competition” with five airports situated less than 100km away, said the Chambre régionale des comptes (CRC) d’Occitanie.
Auditors said the airport, run by a syndicate of communal, departmental and regional councils, also gives Ryanair assistance, which was not disclosed to the French or EU authorities and risks being seen as ‘undeclared state aid’.
This consisted partly of ‘success fees’ of €5.50/passenger departing on new or existing routes, such as Luton, Stansted, Manchester and Bristol.
The CRC said these fees, which had existed for eight years despite an objective of 350,000 passengers a year never being attained, almost cancel out Ryanair’s contribution to airport turnover, despite it being the largest user of its services.
In addition, the syndicate had agreements to pay a Ryanair subsidiary to promote the area to northern European tourists.
An ongoing EU investigation has identified this as a form of subsidy and not “a real need”.
From 2017 to 2021, these payments totalled €10.3million and were in addition to €2.5million in ‘success fees’.
The airport contract with Ryanair allows the firm to cease flights without notice.
EU could challenge aid for Nîmes airport
A report on Nîmes noted “optimistic and fragile hypotheses” of more than 400,000 passengers by 2028, up from 223,000 in 2022.
State aid of more than €8million was expected to be paid in the intervening years, which had not been pre-notified to the EU and risks being challenged.
Projections also included the launch of new domestic routes, notably to Paris, which “remain uncertain in a context of competition from the train and constraints linked to climate laws”.
Economic benefits questioned
Auditors in Nouvelle-Aquitaine cited numerous payments to lighten costs to airlines at La Rochelle airport and an “overestimate” of the economic benefits of low-cost lines relative to their cost and environmental impact.
A report on Brittany noted the “high density” of five airports, with Brest and Quimper being particularly close and the latter “very much council-subsidised”.
A Quimper-Orly service was singled out for receiving €13.5million in subsidies over four years, while flights were only a third full as of 2021, meaning each passenger cost the state €648.
‘Areas poorly served by trains need their airports’
Mr Delétraz said there are only about 10 airports with more than a million passengers a year, and which are truly profitable, with the rest dependent on state subsidies to some degree.
However the aid and passenger numbers are highly variable and working out how much a certain airport brings into the local economy can be complex, he said.
Even so, some are also clearly “essential to the transport infrastructure of the area”.
“I’m thinking, for example, of Castres, Aurillac or Brive, which are areas that are badly served by trains.”
Councils see airports as public service
Airports chief Nicolas Paulissen, of the Union des Aéroports Français, said he does not foresee airports closing but that some routes might be reduced or sites could stop commercial services.
This was the case at Dinard, where Ryanair flights to Stansted ceased in 2021 and the site now focuses on aircraft maintenance.
“It is not news to us that many airports are in deficit but many councils see it as a public service.
“Swimming pools are unprofitable and financed by public funds. Why not airports? The main thing is to run them well and try to avoid high subsidies.”
He said it is “certain” that the dependency of some airports on low-cost firms creates “fragility”.
“It would be best to avoid having airports too close as that allows firms such as Ryanair to play on that competition and obtain advantages that they would not otherwise receive.
“Coherent strategies are needed at regional level so airports have different specialisations.
“It depends also on airlines’ strategies. They go where it’s profitable. But what worries us is increases in tax, especially tariffs that fund safety and security, because that increases companies’ costs, and we worry they could leave France to go elsewhere.”
He said it is true some deals have been questioned by the EU but in that case it should provide clearer regulations as to how airports can legitimately encourage airlines to use their facilities.
He added France would doubtless not have seen so many Britons buying main or second homes were it not for the smaller airports and low-cost flights.
‘People bought homes in France because of the regional airports’
Justine Wallington, co-chair of Rift, an English-speaking support group for people in France, said: “These smaller airports are vital for British, Belgian, Irish and other nationals who rely on them for trips to see family and friends. They are also key for promoting business.
“Many of the flights are for a distance that cannot be practically replaced by train travel.”
Claire Godfrey, south-west spokeswoman for the British Community Committee of France, said: “Many people bought homes in the south-west because of the easy access to London and UK regional airports, as far as Scotland.
“The cost of train travel, and difficulties for older people in poor health, would mean being cut off from friends and family.”
She said some people commute between France and the UK each week and she even spoke to one person who does so daily.
She added that a 2012 survey of over 1,000 people at Bergerac Airport by Dordogne’s business chambers found the average visitor reported spending €1,000 during their trip.
It also found in another study that more than 50% of tradespeople said they had at least half their income from British clients, she said.
Many Britons also live in the Charente and Charente-Maritime and if flights ended at La Rochelle it would “make life very difficult”, she added.
Ruling against Ryanair
In mid-October Ryanair lost two top-level appeals related to French airports.
One found it failed to declare and pay social charges on 127 workers at Marseille from 2007-2010, the other ruled that Angoulême airport did not have to pay a ‘marketing fees’ bill after Ryanair axed a London service at short notice.