French GA airports may lack operators’ support

 - May 6, 2008, 5:07 AM

Several French secondary airports are facing threats of closure within two years. The two most endangered are Valence-Chabeuil and Colmar-Houssen Airports.

In each instance, the operator of the airport–the local chamber of commerce–claims that annual losses are too high and wants to discontinue operations. Little support from local authorities makes the problem far from being solved in the long term.

As most French airports are not profitable for their operator, some fear that such situations may arise at other airports. Colmar and Valence, respectively in the eastern and the southeastern part of the country, each have around 65,000 inhabitants.

Véronique Pulchérie, who’s in charge of Valence airport, told AIN, “At E150,000, the yearly losses we have to cover represent one percent of the budget, which is too high.” The CCI (chamber of commerce) announced in December that it wanted to withdraw immediately from the airport operation. Since then it has forged an agreement with a local authority of the Département de la Drôme to continue operations until the end of next year.

“Traffic has decreased year-over-year since 1991,” Pulchérie said. Sources at French civil aviation authority DGAC told AIN that traffic in Valence has been “steady since 1991,” when the last scheduled service operating from Valence ended. Last year 26,807 aircraft movements were reported, 2,991 of which were IFR flights. Several local companies use the airport for business purposes. Thales Avionics, for instance, operates a corporate shuttle between Valence and Poitiers.

The latest news in Valence is the guarantee by the French state–the owner of the airport–that “minimum conditions for waterbomber operations” will be maintained indefinitely. “In other words, this means that we will keep our VFR capability, but nothing is sure regarding IFR,” one airport defender told AIN.

Pulchérie said the CCI is “actively looking for partners” so it will not leave the airport without an operator. In such a case, the French state could decide to close the airport. The CCI is also “trying to find ways of developing the airport’s activity, such as attracting low-cost airlines,” Pulchérie added.

In Colmar, as in Valence, the operator is the city’s chamber of commerce. “We lose between E91,000 and E137,000 a year,” Jean Jacquey, Colmar CCI’s director of equipment, told AIN. He said budget restrictions make it impossible to bear this
“financial burden.”

The CCI of Colmar announced last November that it would quit operating the airport this past June. Negotiations between the city, which owns the airport, and the CCI are under way. A solution has already been found until year-end, and “we are about to find a solution until late 2005,” Jacquey said. Support from the Alsace region and the Département du Haut-Rhin (the latter is a division of the former) may be found.

Jacquey hinted that the Colmar mayor’s willingness to close the airport in the midterm severely hampers any possibility of development. Last year mayor Gilbert Meyer included such a proposal in his electoral campaign. While Meyer declined to talk to AIN, he has reportedly cited noise and crash risks (the airport is close to the populated area) as the main reasons for his decision.

Local sources suggest that the high resale value of the airport for development is another reason. The mayor plans to move business aviation to a French air force base located 30 km (19 mi) from Colmar. Local operators are concerned that no solution has been found so far to pay for the construction of a civil taxiway and terminal.

Companies such as Sony, Puegeot and Liebherr use the airport for business purposes, either with corporate aircraft or through charter operators. In addition, two charter operators– Airailes and Alsair–are based in Colmar, where they operate a total of seven turbine aircraft. Total traffic, as reported by the DGAC, has been between 38,000 and 49,000 movements a year since 1997. IFR flights have accounted for 5,200 to 6,300 of those movements.

There are some 150 airports in France, 121 of which are operated by CCIs. “If we had to close every loss-making airport, there would be only 10 left,” Rémy Bouin, a member of the board at the French branch of the aircraft owners and pilots association (AOPA France), told AIN. “CCIs are realizing that operating airports is, financially, too burdensome,” he said. “And local authorities often cannot see how the airport can be useful.”

Angers Airport is an exception, with operations under the responsibility of a private company, with traffic-based incentives. Ideally, this may become a new paradigm for
airport operations in France, Bouin believes. In the meantime, local authorities “have to show some interest in their airports and find a way of sharing expenses,” he said.