For reasons ranging from high fuel costs to regulatory complexity, European regional airlines still face “a very difficult time,” according to European Regions Airline Association (ERA) director general Simon McNamara. Meanwhile, persistently weak economic data continued to “depress people’s willingness to travel,” he said, leading to contraction of the European airline industry as a whole.
Nevertheless, the 55 ERA member airlines managed on average to raise load factors on their aircraft, thanks to measured capacity cuts. “It shows our members are reacting dynamically to the market,” said McNamara, who took over as ERA boss from Mike Ambrose just last December. “We’re also still seeing consolidation and some losses,” he added, citing the bankruptcy of OLT Express of Germany as a recent example. Others continue to do well despite everything, but usually due to their status as niche players or support from local politicians.
McNamara has wasted no time finding his stride at the ERA, using his first board meeting, on January 30, to seek approval to carry out a strategic review. His request gained the endorsement of the ERA board, which consists of representatives from regional airlines as well as regional aircraft manufacturers and suppliers. The association plans to present the review when it meets for its October general assembly in Saltzburg, Austria, for implementation beginning early next year, said McNamara.
The new ERA DG added that he sees some “quick wins,” including more one-on-one meetings with politicians, which take place predominantly in Brussels, Europe’s political capital. Delegates at the ERA’s upcoming spring conference, scheduled for April in Edinburgh, expect to discuss how Europe’s centralized decision-making threatens all-important air links to its regions.
Three years will have passed since the conference last met in Edinburgh, when a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland caused chaos far and wide and delegates had to resort to whatever means they could to get home. Discussing passenger rights as the likely main issue of the year would seem rather apt, given the recent ruling by the European Court of Justice that requires airlines to compensate passengers in such situations without limit. “We are 99.99 percent sure that the European Commission will issue a proposal this year to replace Regulation 261/2004,” said McNamara, who suggested that the EC has already informally circulated draft text.
The list of complex issues that form the fronts across which the ERA’s small directorate team must lobby is long. From the Sesar Air Traffic Management initiative–costing regional operators disproportionate amounts to equip their aircraft–to the availability of slots, liberalization of ground handling, safety and security and the Emissions Trading Scheme, the ERA must serve as the watchdog for the interests of Europe’s regionals large and small, as they struggle on in fear of the next cataclysmic event that shuts airspace and leaves them liable.