The COVID-19 pandemic has almost forced the aviation industry to a halt in 2020, at least when it comes to the provision of passenger services: the number of active routes, as well as frequencies were substantially reduced while passenger volumes drastically declined. The impact of COVID-19 on aviation continues to be felt today, as the industry faces an uncertain recovery outlook. While EUROCONTROL forecasts 2022 traffic to recover to 70-90% of 2019 levels, the evolving pandemic has seen traffic fall away from its optimistic forecast to converge increasingly on the baseline forecast.
The Commission adopted several emergency measures to support the aviation sector during the pandemic. First, as confirmed by the discussions of the 17th Florence Air Forum, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission has enabled Member States to use the full flexibility provided under State aid rules to support the aviation industry. In particular, the Commission adopted a temporary framework for State aid rules in 2020, in force until 2022. Thanks to the massive State support approved by the Commission, the aviation ecosystem was thus able to stay afloat. However, this massive State support has also been asymmetric, as certain Member States have granted much higher amounts of aid than others.
This impact of COVID-19 on the competitive landscape in which aviation actors are operating must also be placed against the background of the decarbonisation imperative, as well as in the context of pervasive digitalisation. The combination of all these forces will inevitably result in a post-COVID-19 aviation industry that is significantly different from the one we know today. Consequently, competition law rules and the regulatory environment may have to be adapted to the new circumstances in the industry, and the different instruments (i.e., State aid, mergers, antitrust and the general EU regulatory framework for aviation) will have to be applied in accordance with the new reality. Building upon the discussions of the 17th Florence Air Forum, which centred on the short- and mid-term implications of the pandemic, the 18th Florence Air Forum will take a longer-term perspective in discussing the industry’s resilience and sustainability from both a regulatory and competition law perspective.
The Forum will be kick-started by a presentation of the main findings of the study commissioned by the Commission to assess the structural changes in the aviation market, including those pertaining to connectivity, pricing, competitiveness, as well as the changes to business models and travel demand, among others. Stakeholders will have the opportunity to react to the freshly presented findings while debating the questions: What are the structural changes in the market? What has been the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on operators’ financial status and resilience? How long would it take them to recover? The Forum will also investigate how the pandemic has affected the provision of connectivity (e.g., more destinations but less frequency), ticket prices, travel habits and inter-modality, but also the implications on the competitive structure of different airlines, as well as on the relationships between airlines and airports. The findings of this analytical session will then inform the discussions in the subsequent sessions.
The second session will aim to draw lessons from the crisis. It will be dedicated to the various emergency measures adopted by the Commission including legislative (e.g., Airport Slots, Air Services Regulation, Ground Handling Directive) but also other non-legislative measures (e.g., Guidelines on State aid and emergency Public Service Obligations, Temporary Framework for State aid rules). In the context of State aid support, the Forum will discuss the effectiveness of the flexible rules introduced by the Commission, the limitations of existing State aid instruments, and not least, the issue of aid disparities (i.e., airlines vs. airports, and legacy carriers vs. low cost carriers). Participants will discuss the main challenges identified, including possible ways to address them in any next crisis, be it within the competition law or regulatory framework.
In a third session, the Forum will discuss possible ways of improving the resilience of the aviation sector, so as to reduce the amount of State support needed for airlines and airports during the next crisis, whatever shape it may take. For example, what could be the prudential and capital requirements for both airlines and airports to this end? How can the rules on slots, airport charges or ground-handling be improved to ensure that they are crisis-proof?
Last but not least, this Forum will tackle the timely topic of the aviation sector’s decarbonisation against the backdrop of the Fit for 55 Package. How to strike the right balance between advancing EU greening objectives and securing the competitiveness of EU airlines and airports? What is the role of regulation and/or State aid? How can we render airport acquis greener? Where can the financing come from? What role is there for multimodality (e.g., short haul bans, shift to rail, combination of air and rail)?
Please note that participation in this forum is by invitation only.
Juan Montero – Florence School of Regulation Transport Area
Ernst-Jan Heuten – Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets
Bastiaan de Bruijne – ACI Europe
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