Low-cost carriers slam "over-priced" airports

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Europe's low-cost carriers have launched a bitter series of attacks against high airport charges and costly new facilities.

Low-cost carriers attending the World Low Cost Airlines Congress and Routes network planning event in mid-September say airport charges are out of hand. "Airports need to lower costs and offer a better experience from a social perspective. At the moment it is a worse experience than ever," says easyJet chief executive Andrew Harrison.

Centralwings chief executive Maciej Kwiatkowski says that Warsaw airport is providing such an inefficient, costly and poorly staffed service he is considering switching his base to another Polish airport. "Warsaw is overpriced," he says. "We would move if the deal was good."

Harrison complained that several airports are "overbuilt and incentived to gold plate". He singles out Berlin's new airport and London Stansted as particularly bad offenders given their development plans. "Any change in the UK would be good change," he says.

"We must break up the airport monopoly," says flybe chief operating officer Mike Rutter, referring to the fact that BAA owns London Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted. "It undermines the competitiveness of the industry. Neighbouring airports must have different owners."

EasyJet airport development manager Nigel Fanning points out that although low-cost carriers account for 40% of the traffic at Stansted, the airport plans to spend £2.5 billion ($4.7 billion) to build new "facilities that are neither needed or wanted. All we want is a tin shed and access to our aircraft."

Berlin broke ground in September on a new €2 billion ($2.5 billion) airport which is slated to open in late 2011. "Such plans need huge investment - and this is a threat to the low-cost carriers," says Harrison.

Not surprisingly airports have a different view. "There will be no marble, no gold, just low fees," says Berlin Airports Group marketing director Burkhard Kieker. The new airport was planned in the mid-1990s, before the low-cost revolution took off, and plans will change to reflect that, he says. In addition, it is unreasonable for easyJet to expect the airport to commit to landing fees today for when the airport opens. "Airports and airlines will have to learn how to talk to each other. There's no choice."

Chris Orphanou, senior vice-president of operations at Vinci Airports, says, with some exceptions, that there is no longer any trust between airports and airlines and as a result the bond between the two has weakened. "It's not as strong as it used to be," he says.

Tim McDermott, airport development manager at Manchester Airport Group, says airports need to work with each market sector separately and that what is needed is a more sophisticated yield management model. "One size fits all from an airport perspective is not the way forward," he says. "We need to ask ourselves: What is the product we can build and the airlines will be prepared to pay for?"

Fanning says: "Airport groundhandling is the single biggest cost for easyJet, around 30% of operating costs, and so the need to pass on the pricing pressure felt by airlines is the major challenge confronting the low-cost market over the next five to 10 years."

"We need to get the message out there. Our industry is fighting for oxygen," warns Harrison. "It is being suffocated by airport inertia." ■