Julian Moxon/PARIS

IN A LANDMARK decision, European transport ministers have agreed to a full liberalisation of the region's airport ground-handling from 1 January 2003.

Germany and Austria have refused to sign the agreement, but will still be bound by the decision, which is expected to be ratified by the European Parliament within six months. Other countries, including the UK, wanted faster implementation, but accepted a European Commission (EC) compromise under which competition will be introduced gradually.

From 1 January, 1998, self-handling on the land-side (within the airport terminal) will be fully liberalised, while airlines will be allowed to carry out their own handling on the airside at airports with more than 1 million passengers a year.

A year later, airports with annual throughput of more than 3 million passengers must introduce at least one "third-party" ground handler on both the airside and land-side.

The threshold will be lowered to 2 million passengers, the EC's originally proposed figure, from the start of 2001. "Seasonal" airports will also come under this lower threshold from the start.

The EC also says, that duopolies in which the airport and its major airline both carry out ground handling, must be abolished by 2001.

Karl-Heinz Neumeister, secretary-general of the Association of European Airlines (AEA), warns that this rule effectively "discriminates" against flag carriers which now carry out ground handling at their home airports. He points out that, if the airport chooses to have only one other handler, the flag carrier would find itself having to abandon its handling operation. He comments that the AEA is "disappointed" with the agreement.

In a controversial move, the EC has allowed a process of appeal for any airport, which can prove that it has space constraints in addition to extra handlers.

Those with an existing monopoly will be able to appeal for an extension of up to four years (in two two-year phases) from the 1999 implementation deadline, if there are "genuine physical constraints" to allowing other handlers to operate.

Airports Council International Europe chief Philippe Hamon says that the proposals are "fair to all parties - a lot better than the original EC draft", since they ensure that airports will continue to be able to manage their own affairs, "...and not be managed by a users' committee, or the EC".

Source: Flight International