Brussels, 9 April 2014
State aid: Commission approves Dutch operating aid for Groningen airport
The European Commission has found that operating aid totalling €19.2 million in support of operations at Groningen Airport Eelde is in line with EU state aid rules. The state aid granted by The Netherlands will improve the region's connectivity and the decongestion of bigger airports without unduly distorting competition in the Single Market.
Commission Vice-President in charge of competition policy Joaquín Almunia said: "Today's decision is the first to be adopted under the new EU guidelines on state aid to airports and airlines, which entered into force on 4 April 2014. The case of Groningen airport shows that operating aid granted for a transitional period can be combined with incentives for small airports to increase their efficiency, adjust their business model and to eventually become profitable."
Groningen Airport Eelde is an airport with around 200 000 passengers per year. Since 2001, the Dutch authorities have subsidised the operation of the airport with yearly amounts fixed in advance that were paid to the company partly upfront and partly in annual instalments.
The Commission's investigation found that the aid helps to improve regional connectivity and the decongestion of bigger airports such as Schiphol, in line with EU transport policy objectives. Moreover, the aid provided an incentive to Groningen airport to adapt its business model and rationalise its operations in order to become profitable in the long term. Indeed, the aid amount was calculated on the basis of a business plan according to which breakeven would occur in 2017. The objective of this measure was to phase out operating aid to Groningen airport entirely by 2016 and to give the airport time to attract traffic in order to grow. At the same time, the potential distortions of competition brought about by the aid are limited, because there are no other airports within Groningen's catchment area (i.e. not within a distance of 100 km or 60 minutes travelling time by road).
The Commission therefore concluded that the measure was in line with the 2014 guidelines on state aid to airports and airlines (IP/14/172 and MEMO/14/121). This was the first case where the Commission applied the new guidelines to state aid covering the operating costs of airports (so-called "operating aid"). The new guidelines enabled the Commission to approve operating aid for this small airport, which is important for mobility in the provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe.
Groningen Airport Eelde is located 16 km from the city of Groningen in the north of The Netherlands. It is owned and operated by Groningen Airport Eelde NV (GAE). The closest airport is Lelystad, approximately 143 km and 1 hour 18 minutes travelling time away.
The majority of publicly owned airports are smaller EU airports and they more often rely on public support. Certain European regions are still hampered by poor accessibility from the rest of the EU, and major hubs are facing increasing levels of congestion. Regional airports thus play an important role in ensuring the accessibility of Europe's regions and in the decongestion of hub airports.
Against this backdrop, the Commission's aim is to establish fair competitive conditions in the aviation sector while at the same time allowing regional authorities to meet accessibility and transport needs. This is why the 2014 Aviation Guidelines, which entered into force on 4 April 2014, allow operating aid to small airports under certain conditions during a 10-year transitional period during which such aid must be gradually phased out. Thereafter the airport must be able to cover its own costs. Since very small airports with annual traffic of less than 700 000 passengers may face specific difficulties, they may still benefit from operating aid to cover losses without compulsory phasing out.
In order to reduce the administrative burden the Commission's new 2014 Aviation Guidelines encourages Member States to notify schemes for small airports without other airports in their proximity, instead of notifying aid measures to individual airports. A scheme is a Member State's general framework for the granting of state aid to airports. Once such a scheme authorised by the Commission, aid that complies with the criteria of the scheme can be granted without prior notification to the Commission.
The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.24258 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.