Julian Moxon/BRUSSELS

EUROPE'S AIRLINE chiefs have called on the region's politicians not to drag their feet over plans to liberalise the airport ground-handling market.

The warning came from the Association of European Airlines (AEA), two days before Europe's air-transport ministers were due to meet on 7 December to discuss the issue.

The AEA complains of a "lack of political will" in Brussels to push through free-market reforms in areas such as ground handling and air-traffic control, where European charges remain almost twice as high as those in the rest of the world. It points out that the airlines themselves have already been forced to make the "painful" transition to deregulation.

Scandinavian Airlines System President Jan Stenberg, warns that abuse of ground-handling monopolies are costing the airline "tens of millions" of dollars a year.

"Of the 30 international airports providing access into European Union countries, 60% operate with ground-handling monopolies," he says, adding that charges are up to 50% higher at such airports than at those where there is competition.

A draft directive from the European Commission, drawn up in 1994, effectively proposes an end to monopolies at major airports within two years. There have been moves to slow the transition towards open competition, however, including a series of amendments now being proposed by the European Parliament.

Lufthansa chairman Jurgen Weber claims that, if the "watered down" draft is adopted, there will be "no effective competition until well into the next century". He criticises revised implementation dates and "extensive" exemptions in the amended draft.

The amendments would mean that new competition rules would be applied only to airports with passenger traffic of more than 4.5 million passengers a year, against the original threshold of 2 million. That I'd likely to put another 20 regional airports out of the reach of the legislation.

The Airports Council International Europe, which represents the region's airport operators, has urged the transport ministers to accept the changes to the draft, however.

It claims that airport operators "...do not oppose further liberalisation" and "...recognise that change is inevitable", but warns of the need to manage the transition in an "even-handed and non-discriminatory way".

The airports argue that accelerated deregulation in the USA has left major airlines free to dominate services at their major hubs, to the disadvantage of smaller carriers and new entrants.

Source: Flight International