Aviation has been one of the sectors worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller regional airports have recorded the greatest decline in direct flight connections, particularly in passenger flights. Treviso (Italy) lost 95% of its connections, Vaasa (Finland) 91%, Quimper (France) 87%, and Burgas (Bulgaria) 82%.
In this interview, Władysław Ortyl (PL/ECR), President of the Podkarpackie Region, answers six questions about his opinion on the Future of Regional Airports, which was adopted at the Committee of the Regions’ plenary session on 1 July. The CoR opinion highlights the importance of regional airports for the territorial cohesion of the EU and the socio-economic development of regions and stresses the need to continue working to reduce greenhouse emissions (GHG) from air transport and to align the aviation sector with the objectives of the European Green Deal, the EU’s growth strategy to reach climate-neutrality by 2050.
Why did the European Committee of the Regions decide to draft an opinion on the situation of regional airports?
The aviation sector has been one of the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation facing regional airports is particularly worrying. More than 6 000 routes that were served from Europe’s airports in 2019 were still not restored nine months into the COVID 19 crisis. Smaller regional airports have recorded the greatest decline in direct flight connections, particularly in passenger flights. The sharp drop in revenues has put some airports in such a difficult position that they risk insolvency without external support. Their bankruptcy would have a dramatic impact on employment and the economies of the regions where they are located.
Why is it necessary to support regional airports? Didn’t the aviation sector already receive enough attention during the COVID crisis?
In 2018, aviation in Europe accounted for 26% of global passenger traffic. This, directly and indirectly, provided over 13.5 million jobs. It is estimated that some 1.7 million people are directly employed by airport operators, institutions and companies that work with airports. Regional airports are key to ensuring the accessibility of transport in peripheral, island and outermost regions and therefore make an important contribution to the economic development and job market in these regions. Let’s not forget that they also play a crucial role for air ambulance services, fire monitoring and firefighting flights, and help to ensure the smooth functioning of rescue services, public administration, institutions and businesses. It is important to recognise that the rate at which regions develop depends to a large extent on the quality of their connectivity and that regional airports play a prominent role in EU territorial cohesion.
The European Green Deal sets out ambitious targets, in particular a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to transport by 2050. How can support to airports be conciliated with those objectives?
The European Commission has set out its vision for the decarbonisation of aviation in its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, the result of which should be a 90% reduction in GHG emissions coming from transport by 2050. The Green Deal emphasises that air quality should be improved near airports by tackling the emissions of pollutants by aeroplanes and airport operations, including by gradually increasing the share of alternative fuels. Here I would really like to highlight the necessity to provide EU funds, in the context of cohesion policy for 2021-27, to co-finance investments in regional airports that directly support decarbonisation. It is also crucial to allocate adequate European funds to the development of safety and security infrastructure and to make use of innovative technologies and digitalisation.
What are your recommendations to airports in order to mitigate their CO2 emissions and their environmental impact? What role should local and regional authorities have in this regard?
A significant number of local and regional authorities own or operate regional airports, provide the necessary infrastructure and other services relevant for their functioning, and sometimes contribute to their financing considerably. Regional airports could be ideal pioneers of green innovation, as their inherent characteristics include being smaller, more flexible, and more adaptable to newer, greener types of aircraft. In order to mitigate their emissions, airports can establish the charges paid by airlines based on environmental criteria, for example, by reducing charges for aircraft producing less noise and emitting fewer air pollutants. Moreover, airports can use incentives to support new fuel use or noise reduction.
Are you expecting the European Commission to take any measures, particularly regarding state aid rules and EU funding?
In my opinion, I include a call on the European Commission to develop, as part of the legislative process, even more flexible and more effective public aid rules that enable Member States to provide regional airports with financial assistance in line with the relevant ERDF and RRF provisions for investment in regional airports located in peripheral, island or outermost regions where a more efficient and sustainable alternative (for instance rail) does not exist.
How do you see the future of regional airports in the EU?
I firmly believe that now is the moment to assess the relevance of regional airports in Europe. The assessment needs to consider their role in relation to their connectivity for their citizens, the regional economic development, including tourism, take into account the experience and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their contribution to the EU’s ambitious climate policy. I hope and expect to see coordinated action by the European Commission, the Member States, regions, the research community and businesses with a view to proposing a new comprehensive transport system in Europe, maintaining the aviation mode of transport when it is necessary and where a more efficient and sustainable alternative (for instance rail) does not exist or does not make sense economically.
The draft opinion on the Future of Regional Airports was adopted by the COTER commission of the European Committee of the Regions on 23 April 2021 and is scheduled for adoption at the Committee of the Regions’ plenary session on 1 July.