Friday 03 April 2020
The French national auditor has questioned the long-term future of several of Brittany’s airports.
Since the end of WW11, as a result of a highly ambitious national aviation strategy, both civil and military, France has ended up with far more airports per capita than most countries on the planet, including similar countries such as Italy, the UK or Germany.
That post-war dynamism is now widely accepted to have saddled the country with an unsupportable number of airports, many of which are simply not economically viable. They survive only through direct and indirect government subsidies.
The level of public financial support granted to the airports means most are either publicly owned or run as a public/private partnership.
One very visible display of that toxic legacy is Brittany, which has no less than seven significant airports. They include (departments in brackets):
Additionally, though little used for major commercial purposes, there are also airports at Morlaix (29) and Vannes (56).
To further complicate matters, many Breton organisations, businesses, cultural associations, and even some areas of local government, continue to reference the department of Loire-Atlantique (44) as being part of Brittany. The removal of the department from the administrative region is a decades-old running sore for many Bretons and as a result, some official national government discussions often softly include the department when discussing broader Breton matters – including aviation strategy.
So, along with the above airports, a proper consideration of airports in the region would include those of Nantes and St Nazaire in Loire-Atlantique
In summary, the cultural entity of Brittany has no less than 11 airports within it, by any standards, an embarrassment of riches.
The population of wider Brittany is around 4.4 million, of which around 30% live in Loire-Atlantique. Based on population numbers, there is roughly 1 airport per 400,000 population. By comparison, even the French national average is 1 for almost 1,000,000, whilst the population of Wales is 3.1 million and it has one major airport.
The problem is exacerbated by geography, for all the airports are on the coast of a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, surrounded by ocean on one or more sides. It means, essentially, that they have very limited catchment area opportunities for attracting passengers from other parts of France.
Several of the airports are also in proximity and overlap geographically - Dinard is only 81kms from Rennes and 78kms from Saint Brieuc. Saint Brieuc, in turn, is only 59kms from Lannion.
Unsurprisingly, the above has a knock-on effect on average passenger numbers. The report cites the following passenger flows for 2018 in the administrative region:
The airports at Morlaix and Vannes are excluded from the list, being largely allocated to military, training, smaller corporate and some industrial use.
If as the auditors suggest, an airport needs to service around 1 million passengers each year to stand a chance of being viable, then, with the exception of Rennes and Brest, none of the airports in the region comes even close to that figure.
Moreover, since 2012 almost all the airports, excluding Rennes and Brest, are showing declining passenger numbers.
Despite the lack of traffic at these airports, Nantes airport is widely accepted to be saturated with air traffic to the point of being unable to cope. The cancellation of the proposed new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes which was originally intended to help ease the congestion, leaves this problem hanging.
Some of the arguments behind the cancellation involved speculation of other Breton airports being upgraded to help deal with excess traffic. However, the geographical isolation of many of them (in terms of other parts of France and access to Paris) suggests that might be optimistic, except perhaps for Rennes.
TGV connection to Brittany, though much improved, remains in need of further development. The high-speed line (Ligne Grande Vitesse) itself does not go further west than Rennes.
In addition, for a variety of historical reasons, there are no autoroutes in Brittany, excluding two small free sections near Rennes. There are some excellent roads but long-distance high-speed travel on toll roads doesn’t exist. This affects access travel and journey times from further east.
The report concludes that there is no integrated national or regional strategy for the development of airports in the region, and neither was there a strategy covering inter-linked transport systems.
They consider that some of the existing ‘solidarité’ thinking behind regional air connections to Paris and other parts of France (e.g. via HOP!) are flawed, in that they fail to take into account the increasing competition potentially available from the TGV/LGV.
There is also ample evidence that such routes are not seen as viable by the operating airlines themselves without subsidies – nor are they massively popular with the public if passenger numbers are a guide.
As a result, the authors consider that the existing local and state government subsidies that help keep some of these airports open is not cost-effective.
However, as is frequently the case in France, profitability and economic viability don’t always occupy the same pre-eminent place they would in many other countries.
So, while several of Brittany’s airports seem ripe for closure with their services being consolidated into other airports locally, that might not necessarily mean anything in the near to medium-term future. It would be a brave politician that openly advocated closing down some of the region’s marginal or loss-making airports.
It does, however, seem inevitable that Brittany and the national government will need to take stock and review the position as a result of which the longer-term future of several of Brittany’s smaller airports must be open to doubt.