Brussels, 16 October 2013
State aid: Commission opens in-depth investigation into airlines operating at Spanish airports Girona-Costa Brava and Reus
The European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation to assess whether marketing agreements concluded between public authorities and airlines using Girona-Costa Brava and Reus airports in Catalonia are in line with EU State aid rules. The opening of proceedings gives interested third parties an opportunity to submit comments on the measures under assessment; it does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation.
In May 2012, the Commission received a complaint from an airline with operations at Barcelona-El Prat airport about marketing agreements related to Ryanair's operations at the nearby Girona and Reus airports. The complainant alleged that the agreements amounted to illegal state aid in favour of Ryanair. However, the Commission will investigate all airlines that have signed similar agreements with public authorities linked to Girona and Reus airports. Barcelona, Girona and Reus airports are all operated by Aena Aeropuertos S.A.
The agreements relate to the advertising of the regions concerned and contain various conditions related to the presence and scale of operations of the airlines at the two airports.
In the investigation, the Commission will also verify whether Girona and Reus airports themselves may have benefitted indirectly from the marketing agreements, since the agreements might relieve the airports of costs that they would otherwise normally bear in developing their activities.
On the basis of the information at its disposal the Commission cannot exclude that the marketing agreements give the airlines and/or the airports involved an undue advantage vis-à-vis their competitors, and are thus incompatible with the internal market.
Public intervention into companies carrying out economic activities can be considered free of state aid when they are made on terms that a private player operating under normal market conditions would accept (the market economy operator principle, MEOP). If the MEOP is not respected, the public intervention constitutes state aid in the meaning of the EU rules (Article 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – TFEU), because it procures an economic advantage to the beneficiary that its competitors do not have. The Commission then proceeds to assess, whether such aid can be found compatible with the common EU rules that allow certain categories of aid. In the aviation sector, these rules are set out in the aviation guidelines. The guidelines provide in particular that operating support is likely to distort competition between airlines and airports and is therefore in principle incompatible with the internal market.
Against this backdrop, in 2011, the Commission initiated a review of its guidelines on state aid in the aviation sector with a public consultation on the application of the current legal framework (see IP/11/445), with the aim of adjusting them to recent market developments and to adapt them to the different business models, from flag carriers to low-cost airlines, that have emerged since the start of liberalisation. The new guidelines will improve the level playing field of airports and airlines. The public consultation on the draft new rules ended on 25 September 2013 (see IP/13/644). The Commission received more than 140 responses from the Member States and stakeholders. At the current stage the Commission is analysing the responses received with the aim to adopt new guidelines – covering both airlines and the financing of airport infrastructure – in early 2014.
The non-confidential version of the decision will be published in the Official Journal of the EU and made available under the case number SA.33909 in the State Aid Register on the DG Competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of state aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the State Aid Weekly e-News.