The European Commission has launched an investigation into whether Frankfurt-Hahn airport’s relationship with Irish budget airline Ryanair is in line with EU rules concerning state aid, after receiving a complaint from an undisclosed source.
The commission announced on 26 October that it was probing agreements between the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and Ryanair concerning marketing, training aid and financing as well as airport service agreements, concluded before and during a period – between 2009 and 2017 – when the state was a controlling stakeholder of airport operator Flughafengesellschaft Frankfurt-Hahn. The commission is concerned that the agreements may give Ryanair an undue economic advantage.
It will also examine a guarantee granted to the airport operator by the state concerning the sale of land to an aircraft maintenance company, to establish whether the deal is in line with the provisions of the Commission's Guidelines on State aid to airports and airlines.
The guidelines allow investment and operating aid to regional airports under certain conditions, limited to what is considered necessary in an individual case. They also detail instances in which public subsidies can be used by regional airports or authorities to attract “price-sensitive” airlines, normally in the form of low or discounted airport charges, success fees or marketing payments.
According to the commission, publicly owned regional airports may offer “attractive conditions” to airlines to attract their business but must not go beyond “what a profit-driven airport operator would be prepared to offer under the same circumstances”.
The probe marks the second state aid investigation involving Ryanair by the commission this year, after it announced it was looking into marketing agreements between the airline and a French tourism association at Montpellier airport in July.
"Fair competition is essential for consumers, jobs and growth – also for air transport operators,” commissioner Margrethe Vestager – who is in charge of competition policy – said in a statement, noting that if Ryanair had an “unfair advantage” over competitors, this could harm other airlines and have “spill-over effects on other regions in Europe”.
“Ryanair is confident that our Frankfurt Hahn agreement fully complies with EU state aid rules,” a spokesperson for the airline told ALN. “The EU has previously investigated this matter in 2014 and ruled that there was no state aid involved in the Ryanair-Frankfurt Hahn agreement”.
Earlier this week, the commission dropped a seven-year investigation into whether a codeshare agreement between Brussels Airlines and TAP Portugal restricted competition on flights between Brussels and Lisbon.
The commission launched its investigation in 2011 and in October 2016 sent a statement of objections to Brussels Airlines and TAP Portugal detailing its concerns. It accused the airlines of using the codeshare agreement, which the carriers signed in 2009, to illegally coordinate ticket sales to align prices and reduce the number of seats available on flights. The commission said its investigation focused on the carriers’ behaviour during the first three years of the agreement.
The commission announced on 30 October that it had dropped the Brussels Airlines and TAP Portugal investigation, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.