Ryanair could be ordered to refund fee discounts from Germany’s Frankfurt Hahn airport, after the European Court of Justice ruled that these can be treated as suspected state aid pending an EU Commission investigation.
In 2006, Lufthansa sued Hahn airport in a German regional court to recover discounts the hub had granted Ryanair between 2002 and 2005, and to terminate such aid in future. The case was dismissed by the regional court and, subsequently, a higher court in Koblenz. However, when Lufthansa appealed in a federal court, the case was returned to Koblenz for reconsideration.
Meanwhile, the EU Commission had started an investigation in 2008 to determine whether Hahn’s discounts to Ryanair counted as illegal subsidies. That assessment is still continuing.
After the court in Koblenz asked the European Court of Justice what effect the Commission’s ongoing investigation has on the case, the Luxembourg-based ECJ has now decided that the national court must "adopt all the necessary measures" to avoid the consequences if the payments are deemed illegal by the Commission’s investigation. "The national court may decide to suspend the implementation of the measure in question [discounts] and order the recovery of payments already made," the ECJ has ruled.
The German court in Koblenz has yet to decide how to apply the ECJ ruling.
Though a basic airport fee was imposed on a per-passenger basis, the ECJ says that Ryanair was not charged for landings, take-offs and the use of Hahn’s ground infrastructure in 2003, provided it managed to keep aircraft turnaround time to half an hour.
In addition, the airline benefited from marketing support from Hahn airport for new route openings between 2002 and 2005. Ryanair carries about 95% of Hahn passengers.
The Dublin-based operator says it "welcomes the clarity today's European court judgement brings and will study the ruling in detail".