Possibly the one good thing the EU has done in recent years (ever?) is the deregulation of the airline industry. The result has been a huge number of low cost airlines starting up and flying people to and from all sorts of places on routes that either did not exist or were extremely expensive before. However this is not to say that governments and their generally state-owned flag carriers don't try to evade the rules. One serial protectionist has been (quelle surprise!) France which has found 1001 cunning ways to try and keep Air France alive such as forcing Ryanair off the London-Strasbourg route by complaining about the €1.4m "illegal state aid" provided to Ryanair by the French regional government that owns Strasbourg airport (and subsequently IIRC about the same deal at Brussels Charleroi).
However it has always seemed to me that Air France was in danger of being the subject of revenge from Ryanair because just about everyone knows that the French government does its best to support its flag carrier. Thus it was surely only a matter of time before Ryanair found the appropriate EU regulation to file a complaint and that time appears to have run out yesterday. The BBC reports that Ryanair has found its regulation in the fact that France charges less for take offs for destinations in France compared to abroad:
Ryanair, Europe’s largest low fares airline, today (Thursday, 11th May 2006) announced that it had launched a complaint to the European Commission against Air France regarding approximately €1 billion in illegal state aid that Air France has received from the French Government over the past number of years. The French Government has maintained an airport charging system whereby landing and passenger charges for domestic routes are often up to 50% lower than on routes between France and other EU Member States. This is illegal under European law and the European Commission has sued other Governments for similar differentiated charging.
Now this doesn't just apply to Air France of course, as the BBC notes:
Air France responded by saying all airline fees set by Paris applied equally to all carriers.
But although this does sort of hurt fellow lowcost airline Easyjet, which has been operating a number of domestic flights from Paris, the difference in degree is striking. On the Paris - Nice route, for example, Air France operates about twice as many flights per day and it has been doing so for far far longer. Being forced to repay this money would bankrupt Air France while Easyjet would be able on the hook for (I estimate) something like a tenth of the amount. Obviously Ryanair would be happy to cause Easyjet problems but the repayment would be bearable for Easyjet and not for Air France. Even if the various EU authorities fail to insist on a retrospective repayment and just on equality in the future Air France is still likely to hurt because it will face considerable difficulty making its customers pay the additional cost, especially if fuel prices remain at their current levels...
Oh and of course France isn't the only country to try and protect its domestic market. The Italians have blocked both Easyjet and Ryanair in their attempts to fly to Sardinia by (ab)use of the PSO - Public Service Obligation - rules that are supposed to ensure that "vital" routes are still operated even if the traffic demand makes them non-viable without subsidy. It is interesting to note that France and Italy are a couple of large countries with very few domestic low cost airlines (one in France, two in Italy). Germany, after a slow start, has half a dozen, the UK has perhaps twice that and even small countries such as Denmark or Belgium have more low cost operators. This is very intere