Brussels steps into battle between Spain and airlines over airport fees

European Commission asks Madrid to justify hefty price hikes following complaints from carriers

The European Commission said Wednesday it had opened a formal investigation into the legality of hikes in airport fees introduced by the state operator AENA, which have angered airlines.

The new fees, which came into effect in July of this year, include increases of up to 50 percent in the case of Madrid-Barajas and Barcelona-El Prat airports. The government has up to two months to justify the hikes to Brussels.

Airlines have complained that they were not consulted before the changes were made as established by an EC directive on airport fees approved in 2009. The EC said the directive requires minimum requirements in calculating fees.

An EC spokeswoman said AENA needs to provide figures showing that the new fees are justified on the basis of an increase in its real costs in managing the airports such as in the form of investments. If the government’s response fails to satisfy Brussels, the EC may open sanctions proceedings and eventually take the case to court.

The Commission said the increase in fees is significant for the airlines and could dissuade some companies from using Barajas and El Prat. The average increase for 2012 was 19 percent, with a further hike of 8 percent planned for 2013. AENA argues the law allows it to increase fees for the period 2013-2015 by the annual inflation rate plus five percentage points to recoup past investments. AENA is sitting on debt of some 14 billion euros.

Shortly after the new fees were announced in June, low-cost carrier Easyjet said it would abandon its base at Madrid airport.

The Spanish secretary of state for the European Union, Iñigo Méndez Vigo, described the Commission’s move as “normal.”

Tony Tyler, the director general and chief operating official of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), has slammed the hike as “madness” at a time when airlines are already struggling to cope with higher fuel costs. IATA groups together 240 airlines in 115 countries.

Tyler said last month it made no sense for a country such as Spain, which is so dependent on tourism, to make itself less competitive.

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