Spotlight on losses and low travel numbers at small French airports

Critics say France’s 72 small and regional airports cost hundreds of millions in public money to maintain, but one airport group says they are an ‘asset’ that must remain open

A view of a Ryanair plane in a blue sky
Some small airports in France are too reliant on low-cost airlines, critics say, such as La Rochelle and Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair
Published Last updated

Small airports in France have too-few passengers, are too reliant on low-cost airlines, and cost too much public money to maintain, figures suggest - but proponents say they must stay open.

Hundreds of millions in costs…very few passengers

There are 72 airports considered to be ‘small, regional’ sites in France, which is the most out of all its EU neighbours.

Some are also very close to each other; for example, Pau and Tarbes are just 50 km apart, but both have airports. Similarly, Nîmes, Béziers, and Montpellier - all in Occitanie - are reachable in under 40 minutes driving between them.

The cost of running these sites is too high, argues Jacques Pavaux, former director general of the Institut du transport aérien, and author of several reports on the cost of small airports.

“Just covering the operating deficits of regional airports costs the taxpayer €100 million a year,” he told Capital.

“To this €100 million, we must add €20 million in investment subsidies, as well as €30 million in property tax rebates, not forgetting €25 million in funding for so-called regional development routes, such as Paris-Aurillac, Paris-Tarbes or La Rochelle-Lyon, all of which are loss-making,” said Mr Pavaux.

He estimates that between them, these airports handle just one million passengers a year (only 14 airports in France handle more than this), meaning that it is very difficult for them to maintain financial balance. Some airlines even count the same passenger twice (arrival and departure), meaning that the actual number could be even lower, he said.

In contrast, major hubs like Paris Charles de Gaulle handle more than 57 million passengers per year, Paris Orly more than 29 million, Nice more than 12 million, and Toulouse just over seven million.

Mr Pavaux estimates that if the cost of all the extra government services is added to the bill (such as customs and air traffic control) the total public aid given would exceed €250 million per year.

His assessment comes after a European directive said that all public aid should be abolished for airports that handle fewer than three million annual passengers (there are just 10 airports in France above this). Yet, while the measure was initially scheduled for April 2024, it has now been postponed until 2027.

“If it were up to me, I'd close 30 airports in the country,” said Mr Pavaux.

Just 1,092 passengers per year

One such example is the Touquet Paris-Plage airport (Nord), which had just 1,092 passengers in 2022, according to figures from the Direction générale de l’aviation civile (DGAC).

Among them were President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who use the airport around once a year when returning from abroad. The airport also serves as a regular base for the England Rugby Team, and has historic links to the UK.

Read more: King approves renaming of Le Touquet airport to honour Elizabeth II

“There is almost no commercial activity here…sometimes a few charters,” said one employee to Capital. “The airport only survives through its aircraft club.”

Despite this, it still costs money and time to maintain, including keeping the runways in good repair, safety, a terminal, and firefighters on reserve.

The council at Le Touquet-Paris Plage holds a majority stake in the airport's semi-public company, and this is the only reason that the site remains open. “Without municipal support, the company would be making chronic and lasting losses,” said the magistrates of the Hauts-de-France Regional Audit Office in 2019.

In 2022, the airport posted only €650,000 in revenue, mainly from fuel sales (€250,000). The same year, it received €444,480 in public subsidies, including €154,480 from the city’s tax coffers.

Over-reliance on low-cost airlines?

Many of these small airports are dependent on one or two airlines to stay open, and are prepared to do almost anything to keep them there.

In Charente-Maritime, for example, La Rochelle airport (which saw 180,000 passengers in 2022 across 2,372 commercial flights) offered such favourable terms to Irish low-cost airline Ryanair that it was reprimanded by the regional audit office for offering “illegal public aid” to a private company.

The department even worked with Ryanair to sell Charente as a destination, and gave almost €1 million in direct aid to the company.

Mr Pavaux, the small airport expert, believes that a low-cost airline route is not enough to justify keeping an airport open. He said: “We've been dragging our heels financially for thirty years, on the pretext that a few low-cost airlines are bringing in tourists.”

Read more: Low-cost airlines ‘unjustly favoured in new tax plan’, says Air France

Such dependence on low-cost airlines can also lead to difficult situations at the airports themselves, if routes change or external factors hit traffic.

In Lorient, for example, passenger numbers have fallen from 100,000 passengers a year before the Covid health crisis, to just 5,870 passengers in 2022, after services to Lyon and Paris ended.

In the Marne region, the runway at Vatry is also all-but-deserted, despite being one of the longest runways in Europe. Majority owned (56%) by the department, the airport has turned to freight and Chinese e-commerce in a bid to diversify away from commercial jets.

However, it had hoped to handle 120,000 tonnes of freight in 2022, but only handled 18,000, prompting it to require emergency aid of €3.1 million to stay open.

In the past 20 years, the airport has had almost €60 million in public funding, and the new Senator for Marne, Christian Bruyen, is now even considering a sale. Chinese and Middle Eastern investors have reportedly been among the first to show interest, but French authorities may block such a sale.

‘Closing an airport is irreversible’

Despite the losses, one airport organisation has questioned the principle of judging airports’ usefulness on their cost in the first place.

“The real question is whether a regional airport should break even,” said Nicolas Paulissen, general delegate of the Union des Aéroports Français, the operator of 154 airports in France.

He added that keeping these airports open represents a tiny 0.5% of the total transport budgets of departments and regions nationwide.

“It’s not about whether we’re throwing money out of the window,” he said. “These hubs fulfil public service missions. Closing an airport means cutting off an asset, and that's irreversible.”

The viability of smaller airports in France has been debated repeatedly in recent months and years after issues were flagged by the public sector auditing body, the Cour des comptes.

Similarly, the government has technically banned flights between cities that can be reached by TGV (or similar) service in 2.5 hours; although many routes still operate despite this due to loopholes such as the location of the airport compared to the comparable train station.

Related articles

Regional French airports under threat as auditors question value
MAP: See where France’s 148 main airports are