Coronavirus recovery: Will France’s 150 airports survive?

Experts believe it will take until at least 2024 for air travel to return to pre-pandemic levels as tourists stay at home and business trips are replaced by conference video calls. But how will the government do it?

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The French government has allocated €15billion to sustain the sector, which the International Air Transport Association says is facing 466,100 job losses in France alone. The industry must also confront environmental challenges, including a move to greener energy with solar, electric and hybrid planes.

Despite all this, award-winning French aviation journalist Gil Roy argues there is still plenty of life in France’s airports – great and small.

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French airports affected by Covid-19

Fears that the small regional airports that provided easy pre-Covid links with the UK might be in danger will probably not materialise. There are around 150 airports in the French airports trade body – one of the highest numbers among EU countries – and even before the pandemic there were occasional calls for a rationalisation of the network.

Last year, for example, some councillors in Normandy said having three council-funded airports – Le Havre, Deauville and Caen – within 30km of each other was too expensive. Author and journalist Gil Roy, who runs the website and who was awarded France’s Médaille de l’Aéronautique for his contribution to spreading knowledge about aeronautics in France, said his opinion is that all airports will remain open.

“They are owned by towns and other local government bodies, and people are very, very proud of them,” he said. “Even when it involves a big financial sacrifice, people will do all they can to keep airports open, as a matter of local pride, and also because of the tangible economic and other benefits that they bring.”

The problem is more likely to come, he warned, from the airlines, especially low-cost providers such as Ryanair and Easyjet that serve smaller regional airports.

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Futures unclear

“The airports are prepared to pay to continue the services they have, but it is not clear whether the airlines will return to the routes they had in the past,” he said. An example of how local authorities are determined to keep their airports is Angoulême, which lengthened its runway to attract Ryanair – and then lost the service after a short time in a legal row over how much the owners of the airport should pay the airline to land there.

For a while, it had regular flights linking Angoulême with Corsica during the holiday season and a regular “air taxi” linking the city with Lyon, but they also stopped. Since then, the airport has remained open, with a helicopter training school and aircraft maintenance companies providing its only revenue. A flying club also uses the facilities.

Mr Roy said the legal disputes at Angoulême had served as a wake-up call to other airports. “Since then, they have been very clear that the agreements they sign with airlines and others meet all the government’s rules and all Europe’s rules,” he said. “It is unlikely that even if the Cour des Comptes [France’s official controlling body of state expenditure] opened an investigation, it would be able to fault the airports.”

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What are Air France's plans?

Air France has published a list of airports it hopes to be able to use by this month, linking the provinces with Paris Charles de Gaulle. The airports are: Biarritz, Bordeaux, Brest, Clermont Ferrand, Lorient, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Mulhouse, Nantes, Nice, Pau, Rennes, and Toulouse.

In addition, services to Aurillac, Brive, Castres and Lourdes, where the airline holds a Délégation de Service Public grant to provide links to Paris, are due to start later. Bordeaux is included on the list, even though the airline was told to stop flying routes where TGV trains made the same journey in under 2h30 minutes. Air France got an exception for flights to Charles de Gaulle because the airport is a hub for international travel. Air France flights between Orly airport in Paris and Bordeaux have been scrapped.