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Already in bad shape before the crisis, regional airports threatened by the lasting decline in air traffic

A runway closed at Roissy airport, in May 2020. – Jacques Witt / SIPA

  • Paralyzed by the waves of Covid-19, airports are seeing their attendance drop very sharply.
  • Regional airports which welcome less than a million passengers per year will increase the already recurring losses.
  • The question of government support for these structures arises.

Almost grounded since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, the air transport sector does not yet know when it will be able to take off again. Due to a lack of passengers, all airlines have reduced their number of flights and many, such as Air France, have already announced savings plans. Direct consequence: airports receive less and less traffic. If global platforms like Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly, which have accumulated more than 100 million passengers in 2019, obviously suffer the blow, the situation is even more critical for regional airports.

When flying over France, we can see distress signals almost everywhere. In Lorraine, Metz-Nancy airport will lay off 18 people (out of 79 employees) by the end of the year. According to France Bleu, “only 36,500 passengers came to Louvigny [en 2020] against 265,000 last year ”. That is to say a drop in attendance of 86%. “If there is no resumption of activity in 2021, we are shut down, we must not hide our face,” says Frédéric Perrot, CGT delegate of the site, to 20 Minutes. At Biarritz-Pays Basque airport (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), a social plan was presented in mid-October and layoffs could take place to adapt, here too, to the drop in the number of passengers (400,000 in 2020 against 1.2 million in normal times).

Grants in question

Same difficulties in Morbihan, where Lorient-Bretagne Sud airport (102,000 passengers in 2019) has decided to close certain days of the week, for lack of planes to take off. Finally, in Poitiers (Vienne) as in Dole (Jura), it is the local elected representatives who are reluctant to renew subsidies for deserted infrastructures but very greedy in public money.

This observation does not date from the Covid. In 2008, a report from the Court of Auditors already summed up the basic problem of many regional airports: “They only handle low traffic and ensure the maintenance of their activity mainly thanks to subsidies from local authorities, in particular for what concerns investments (…) These subsidies sometimes reach amounts which raise questions about the continued operation of certain platforms. “

An expenditure of 170 million euros per year

An analysis corroborated by the recent work of Jacques Pavaux, transport consultant and former director general of the Air Transport Institute. This expert published an edifying report in 2019 showing that most French airports were not profitable. “Below one million passengers per year, an airport will inevitably have an operating deficit, since its revenues are not sufficient to cover its expenses”, underlines Jacques Pavaux, questioned by 20 Minutes. According to figures compiled by the French Airports Union (UAF), only 17 airports in mainland France exceeded one million passengers in 2019.

Extract from the 2019 UAF report with airport attendance.
Extract from the 2019 UAF report with airport attendance. – UAF

For almost all the others – around 70 – it is the local communities and the State which are absorbing the deficits, year after year. “This represents an annual cost for public finances of 100 million euros, figure Jacques Pavaux. Added to this are investment aid, which represents 20 million euros per year (runway maintenance), since the airports do not have sufficient revenue. Finally, these airports benefit from a reduction in their property tax representing a loss of revenue of over 50 million euros per year. If we add it up, we arrive at an overall cost of 170 million euros annually to help French air transport. “

Oriented studies

This continuous outpouring of public money is justified by airport managers with a simple argument: their infrastructure would be necessary for the development of territories sometimes poorly served by other rapid means of transport (TGV, motorways, etc.). In Lorient, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of the department, for example, considered that the partial closure of the airport was “a real pitfall for the development of businesses and the attractiveness of the territory”.

“The managers wanted to prove that their airports were useful, so they had economic impact studies carried out which almost always lead to show that there is a positive balance for the local economy. But these studies are biased, ”says Jacques Pavaux. He gives an example to support his demonstration: “looking at the impact study of an airport in a large regional city, I noticed that they considered that the 160 taxi drivers in the agglomeration were jobs. indirect generated by the activity of the airport. In reality, these taxis made very few trips to the airport, so they could not be counted that way. All serious studies carried out in Europe [comme celle analysant les aéroports régionaux d’Allemagne] show that the establishment of a regional airport has a negligible effect on the surrounding economy ”.

“Put some order back”

In short, for the transport expert, “the Covid-19 can be an opportunity to restore order. With the crisis, the airports will demand more subsidies, and it is perhaps the moment for the authorities and the citizens to take a closer look at what is happening there and to say stop. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that in France, 20 to 30 airports with commercial links could close immediately, since they are useless. “

“The current situation is likely to continue as long as the public authorities are ready to pay”, adds Marc Ivaldi, economist and transport specialist. But the situation could quickly change, especially with citizen mobilization. At the beginning of October, several NGOs thus demonstrated near tarmacs, all over France, to demand a reduction in air traffic in order to preserve the environment. For Maximes Combes, economist member of Attac questioned at the beginning of the month by 20 Minutes, « [il faut] use this unique opportunity represented by the current crisis in the aviation sector to organize its gradual conversion – no one says it must be done overnight – and start on a better environmental basis. Deserted by their passengers, criticized for their economic cost, singled out for their environmental impact, regional airports have therefore entered a zone of very strong turbulence from which they will not all emerge unscathed.


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