Economy & Politics

Airports “Zombie Airport”: Germany’s regional airports under fire

Hardly anything going on at Erfurt-Weimar Airportimago images / Christoph Worsch

If you want to fly away from Thuringia today, you first have to travel to another federal state. At the only airport in the country, Erfurt-Weimar, the only plane of the day took off at 8.30 a.m. for Debrecen, Hungary. There is another flight to Rhodes on Thursday. According to the flight schedule, Friday is a day of rest.

It is a manageable offer that the state of Thuringia – and to a small extent the city of Erfurt – made possible with grants of more than 13 million euros in the years 2014 to 2018. For the past and current year, the state government wanted to contribute a total of 7.6 million euros. The Germania bankruptcy caused passenger numbers to collapse in 2019. Then Corona was added in spring 2020.

Erfurt-Weimar Airport is what Matthias Runkel calls a “zombie airport”: still in operation, but practically dead and rather annoying for his environment. The transport policy advisor at the Forum Ecological-Social Market Economy (FÖS) identified eleven other such undead in a joint study with the environmental association BUND. “In the medium term, we do not see any economic basis for the survival of these airports,” said BUND traffic expert Werner Reh when presenting the study.

In their study for the period from 2014 to 2018, the authors recommend that the federal government withdraw the livelihood of state aid “in the short term” at least seven airports. In addition to Erfurt-Weimar, these are Frankfurt-Hahn, Kassel-Calden, Niederrhein-Weeze, Paderborn-Lippstadt, Rostock-Laage and the airport in Saarbrücken.

Hardly any flights, hardly any passengers: emptiness at Kassel-Calden Airport (Photo: imago images / Aviation-Stock)

What these airports have in common is that they fail all three criteria set by the authors for an airport that makes sense in terms of transport policy. First, they are not important for connecting a remote region to the rest of the world. Instead, there is a larger airport in less than 100 minutes by train, which also covers the connections offered. Second, contrary to the trend, falling passenger numbers showed the lack of demand at the locations. Thirdly, they are unprofitable and can only survive through direct subsidies, which mostly come from the public purse.

At the other seven airports, the conclusion is hardly better. Five airports meet at least one criterion. The airports in Karlsruhe, Dortmund and Münster-Osnabrück recorded a growing number of passengers during the study period. Dresden and Friedrichshafen score points with their contribution to connecting their region. The airports in Memmingen and Bremen are the only ones that did not need any direct subsidies in 2018, and they also performed well in a second category, albeit with restrictions: Bremen on the connection to the world, Memmingen on the growth in passenger numbers.

Corona makes things even more difficult

According to Runkel, the system of German regional airports, which is already “largely deficit”, is plunged into a double existential crisis as a result of the pandemic: Many flights have been canceled in recent months. But even in the coming years, most market participants and experts believe that passenger traffic will not return to the level of the booming previous years.

On the contrary: Short-haul flights in particular are no longer available. Lufthansa wants to concentrate on core routes, and there was a trend among low-cost airlines to migrate to large airports even before Corona. The tourist flier Tuifly is fighting for survival and will also have to permanently reduce its offer.

“The crisis harbors the chance of consolidating the completely inefficient German airport system,” the study says. Because most of the problems are homemade: the oversupply at smaller airports has led to a price war over the fees that airlines pay per passenger in recent years. Because there was no national strategy, airports close to each other cannibalized each other. The prime examples are Kassel, Paderborn, Münster-Osnabrück and Dortmund.

The issue of subsidies

The airports only survive because their mostly public owners contribute money to ongoing operations – after regional politicians have often made huge sums of money available for such prestige projects for the acquisition of land and the construction of the airports. On average, around 40 million euros in direct grants flowed to the 14 regional airports every year from 2014 to 2018, according to Runkel and Reh. Their conclusion: “The absolute majority of airports are unprofitable and can only continue to exist because of the subsidization.”

However, this type of subsidization is prohibited under EU law from 2024. According to BUND, the airport association and the Federal Ministry of Economics want to postpone the deadline. But an end is near, one way or another. Zweibrücken, Magdeburg-Cochstedt, Lübeck and Schwerin-Parchim have shown that regional airports can also disappear from the flight plan again. Erfurt-Weimar and Frankfurt-Hahn are considered hot candidates to be the next.

Just climate lobbyism?

The Airport Association ADV rejects the BUND study on the grounds that it is based on “incorrect assumptions” and “irrelevant conclusions”. Regional airports are indispensable for the economic and tourist connection of all regions. The study by Reh and Runkel ignores the economic effects of an airport in the respective region. In addition, in other European countries, indirectly, more aid would flow to airports than in Germany. The criticism of the regional airports comes from “interested parties”.

In fact, BUND and FÖS see advantages in a timely exit of the regional airports. Most of the flights from there were only for vacation and entertainment purposes anyway and could therefore be dispensed with from an economic point of view. The authors of the study calculated that 1.8 million tons of CO2 would be emitted by the flights handled by regional airports. The experts put the total climate impact of the regional airports at 4.2 million tons of CO2.

By way of comparison: doubling the number of rail passengers would save around a million tons of CO2. On the other hand, the entire CO2 burden would not be eliminated because many passengers would only switch to one of the eight to ten major airports in Germany. The authors of the study consider the necessary train journey to the airport in under 100 minutes to be reasonable and recommend the federal and state governments to invest public money in even better rail connections to the major airports in the future.

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