France Seeks To Curb Short-haul Domestic Flights

 - June 23, 2020, 1:00 PM

The French government is planning to issue a decree that will preclude other airlines, specifically low-cost carriers, to operate short-haul domestic routes that Air France must abandon as part of its bailout. The French flag carrier will receive €7 billion in state aid and in return, it is asked to reduce its carbon footprint and cut domestic flights for which an alternative rail journey of two and a half hours exists. Flights to and from Paris Charles de Gaulle are excluded to preserve the airport’s hub function.  

While the reduction of the regional network was designed as a condition for Air France’s Covid-19 rescue package, the measure will be extended to all airlines, even though they are not getting French state aid. “If we demand this from Air France, it's not for a low-cost airline to come and set up a service instead of Air France. That's why we want to prevent other airlines from taking over,” France’s Minister of the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Elisabeth Borne, told BFMTV on Monday. In a separate interview, Secretary of State for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari stressed that it is “obviously not conceivable that operators of any kind, especially low-cost,” will come and operate a route that Air France was asked to withdraw from. “So we will issue a decree for environmental reasons, which is obviously compatible with European law, so that there is not, in fact, these distorting effects of competition,” he added.

Europe’s two largest LCCs do not seem to be concerned by France’s short-haul domestic routes restructuring. “Ryanair operates six domestic routes in the French market, none of which will be impacted by the conditions set out in this decree,” the airline told AIN. EasyJet noted in an emailed statement to AIN that it is the second-largest domestic airline in France and “our existing domestic network operates routes where train liaisons exceed three hours.” The London Luton airport-based LCC operates 37 domestic routes in France, essentially on crosswise destinations such as Nantes-Nice or Toulouse-Lille. From Paris, easyJet operates three year-round domestic routes to Nice, Toulouse, and Biarritz and three summer routes to Corsica.

Volotea, which operates between medium and small-sized airports in France, did not respond to AIN’s request for comment. The Spanish LCC has French bases in Nantes, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Marseille, and Toulouse; a base in Lyon is scheduled to open this year.

EasyJet and Ryanair, however, reject the introduction of a minimum fare, which they claim is not possible as EU law stipulates that airlines operating in the EU have full pricing freedom. Borne last week revealed that she is “in principle” in favor of mirroring Austria’s so-called anti-dumping initiative that is supposedly intended to support the country’s green ambition and stimulate a shift from air to rail for short trips. The proposed regulation, which surfaced earlier this month alongside the bailout agreement for Lufthansa subsidiary Austrian Airlines, would prohibit the sale of tickets that are cheaper than the sum of all levies and taxes for direct flights of less than 350 km. Borne said she finds it “quite shocking to make it look like making a Paris-Marrakech or a Paris-Prague flight costs €15. It costs the planet a lot more than that.”

“EasyJet does not support the introduction of a minimum fare for plane tickets,” the airline told AIN. “This not only goes straight against EU law, it isn’t the right approach to mitigate the impact of aviation on the environment and would save very little CO2. Although our average fare is €55, well above the proposed minimum, we feel strongly that this measure has no environmental benefits, provides no incentives for airlines or passengers to improve the carbon efficiency of their flying, and just distorts the market.”

Ryanair labeled the idea of a minimum price limit as a “stupid political proposal to raise fares for millions of ordinary consumers on European short-haul flights. This anti-consumer measure—which is only supported by state-subsidized flag carrier airlines—would be illegal under EU law.” Low-fare flights are a consumer right in Europe, the Irish group stressed. Ryanair added it is “confident that the European Commission will not allow flying to again become a privilege for very rich people only, which is what this illegal proposal would give rise to.”