New European Commission rules for state aid to aviation will be more flexible for airports with up to 700,000 passengers per year until 2024, but green campaigners are angry at the EU executive for “backing down”.

The European Commission adopted the new guidelines for airlines and airports last week (20 February), introducing more flexibility on operating aid for small and regional airports during a ten-year transition phase.

Operating aid for airports under one million passengers a year will be legal from now on under certain conditions and for a transitional period of 10 years, provided the airport submits a business plan that will have to be approved by the EU executive.

As for very small airports, the Commission accepted to raise the threshold to 700,000 passengers per year, instead of the 300,000 initially considered, a move hailed as a victory by politicians who lobbied the EU executive for the measure.

French MEP Franck Proust (European People's Party), who established an informal group of MEPs inside the European Parliament to oppose the draft aviation guidelines, was triumphant. In a statement, he said the new threshold would “shelter 92% of the airports with less than a million passengers a year and the totality of French regional airports of this category.”

The transnational group composed of MEPs from practically all political groups in Parliament had been lobbying hard for changes to the rules, alongside the Committee of Regions and low-fare airlines and regional organisations.

The group was however defeated in their opposition to the 10-year transitional period, which they deemed “unrealistic”, saying that regional airports that are not competitive “will not become competitive in ten years either.”

Previous EU rules entirely prohibited any operating aid but they were largely ignored by local authorities. As a result, most of the previously illegal aid is or will be declared legal retroactively.

Environmental concerns

The final decision on the aviation state aid rules has angered green campaigners, who denounced a “tightening of state aid for airports” and an “amnesty for past illegal practices”.

Transport and Environment (T&E), a green campaign group, underlined that “a lot of the past aid has been used […] to entice low-cost airlines to expand services to regional airports,” leading them to grow “much faster than bigger airports”. The group adds that airports under 1 million passengers a year have grown by 135% over the past ten years.

Environmentalists have been calling for stricter state aid rules for all airports, small or large, during the public consultations, warning that such airports have mushroomed all over Europe even in places where they are “unnecessary”, leading to “increased CO2 emissions from aviation”.

A briefing by T&E showed that in countries like France, airports can be found at less than 20km distance from each other.

The Commissioner in charge of competition, Joaquín Almunia, said at a press conference that the former “100km distance rule” was a “good reference” but can be now overlooked depending on other factors such as congestion or other available transport modes.

Other types of aid

The new aviation state aid guidelines also accept investment help for building infrastructure "if there is a genuine transport need”. In addition, the Commission will allow start-up aid for airlines to launch new routes, although these will be limited in time.