Ryanair fires shots in air battle with Athens Airport

Irish low-cost airline Ryanair launched an aerial assault on Athens International Airport (AIA) on Thursday, accusing Greek officials of damaging the tourism industry because of high charges for air carriers.

Executives from the Dublin-based carrier held a news conference in Athens yesterday to announce what they said was a “plan to save Greek tourism.” Ryanair tried to entice Greek authorities to waive air passenger duty for new connections to and from Athens by saying that it could boost the number of visitors to Greece by 10 million over the next three years.

Ryanair’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer Michael Cawley accused AIA management of being responsible for the decline in passenger traffic at the country’s biggest airport, which he attributed to the high charges it imposes for the use of its installations and services.

AIA responded immediately by issuing a statement in which it suggested that it was averse to taking action that would have damaging consequences for the air companies that have invested in a long-term presence at the capital’s terminal. The Athens Airport management went on to accuse Ryanair of having a policy that tries to develop regional airports but does not involve the company committing itself to long-term investments.

In fact, the airline’s presence in Greece until today has not been steady at all. It has tried to open up regional destinations only to abandon them soon afterward.

Ryanair canceled its flights to Rhodes and Kos from last fall, citing a failed agreement with local authorities to promote tourism on the two Dodecanese islands. Rhodes and Kos authorities responded by accusing Ryanair of trying to secure preferential treatment. A similar strategy led to the cancellation of flights to Volos in central Greece, while Marseille, in southern France, also fell victim to the same practice.

On the other hand, Athens Airport remains one of the terminals with the highest charges among its competitors, owing to the peculiar form of a binding concession agreement. This makes it very costly for airlines to use the airport, also known as Eleftherios Venizelos. However, the planned long-term extension of the concession agreement could give AIA more flexibility, allowing it to revise its charges.

Cawley argued on Thursday that the AIA’s pricing policy, rather than the economic crisis, is exclusively responsible for the limited air traffic at the country’s main airport. He stressed that Ryanair is growing despite the adverse financial environment.

For its part, the management of Athens International Airport responded by saying that there is no direct connection between airport charges, passenger traffic and its sustainable growth. It said that charges reach no more than 4 to 7 percent of an air carrier’s operating costs.

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