EU Wants Airports to Justify Fees to Airlines

BRUSSELS, Belgium_The European Union called on airport operators Wednesday to justify the fees they charge to airlines using their services in a new bid to increase competition and reduce ticket prices for consumers.

Air carriers have complained that as the number of flights takes off, airports are sometimes charging excessive fees to airlines for managing take-off, landing and baggage handling.

EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot presented new proposals which would force airports to adhere to common EU-wide standards how they set their charges, but fell short of setting a cap on the charges to airlines.

"The way in which these fees are set has to be transparent," Barrot said. "This is designed specifically to moderate the fees of large airports because there is a larger level of demand and they might want to abuse the system and put up their fees ... This is designed to combat that."

Under Barrot's plan each EU government will have to put in place an independent regulator to arbitrate fees levied on airlines by airports.

Each airport currently negotiates its own charges with airlines. The EU wants them to explain how they calculate their fees and give airlines the right to complain to a regulator if they are unhappy.

It also wants airports to be more open about what it plans to spend on new infrastructure or security screening facilities since these can push up the fees.

And it said that airports used by low-cost carriers such as Ryanair PLC should be allowed to charge less for reduced services - as long as these were open to all carriers.

Airport charges account for between 4 percent and 8 percent of carriers' costs but they are rising steeply as airlines slim down what they pay to run aircraft, ticket sales and back-office operations and cut fares by nearly a third over the last decade amid fierce competition.

"The cost per passenger rose 13 percent between 2001 and 2004," the International Air Transport Association said.

Fifteen of the world's 25 most expensive airports are in Europe, it said, claiming that prices have increased sharply in Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Munich in recent years.

The Association of European Airlines said it was high time all EU nations put rules in place that force airports to negotiate fees fairly with airlines.

"Airlines compete for passengers, but cannot choose the airports they wish to fly to," said AEA Secretary General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus. "Although many airports have begun treating airlines as customers and no longer as users, they are still natural monopolies."

However, airports will have to expand rapidly if traffic keeps up with current trends and doubles within 20 years.

"If current capacity levels are not drastically increased, it is estimated that over 60 European airports will be heavily congested and the top 20 airports will be saturated at least 8-10 hours per day by 2025," the Commission said.

Since it takes between five and 10 years for airports to add capacity, the EU executive said it was urging more efficient use of existing facilities. It also called for better rail links to less popular airports to ease the pressure on main city hubs.

Air traffic in Europe tripled between 1980 and 2000 with flights within the EU increasing by 150 percent from 1992 and 2005, the EU said.