On 17 December 2008, the CFI found that the Commission made an error in law when it decided that discounts in landing charges and ground-handling services at Charleroi Airport negotiated by Ryanair from the Walloon region in Belgium amounted to illegal state aid.
Overall, the case demonstrates that it is possible to challenge successfully Commission decisions in state aid matters. The CFI held that the Commission must look at all the circumstances in a case; the Commission's refusal to examine together all the advantages granted by the Walloon Region and the Airport and to determine whether those two entities acted as rational investors in a market economy was vitiated by an error in law. The CFI also held that the since airport operator BSCA was an entity which was economically dependent on the Region, the Commission ought to have considered them to be one and same entity for the purposes of determining whether, taken together, they had acted as rational operators in a market economy. The Court also held that the Walloon Region was actually carrying out activities of an economic nature (i.e., not a regulatory function). In support of this assessment, it highlighted the fact that the fixing of landing charges and the accompanying indemnity were activities which were directly connected with the management of airport infrastructure.
The CFI stated that the mere fact that an activity was carried out in the public sector did not mean that it could be categorised automatically as the exercise of public authority powers. Similarly, the CFI stated that the mere fact that a public authority has regulatory powers in relation to the fixing of airport charges does not mean that a scheme reducing charges ought not to be examined by reference to the "Market Economy Investor Principle" since such a scheme could have been put in place also by a private operator (such as the BSCA).
The Commission may still appeal the judgment to the European Court of Justice or open a new investigation but the CFI's judgment is worth studying because of the lessons which can be deduced from it. The judgment of the Court in the case will have a greater significance than in the realm of airports; it is important in the context of how the public sector more generally engages in the commercial arena.
Ryanair's successful appeal took four and a half years from the institution of the appeal (which must be done expeditiously) to the delivery of the judgment. Dr Vincent Power and Dorit McCann of A&L Goodbody acted for Ryanair in this matter.