It was a busy time last week for Belgium’s Flemish government officials as the old dispute on Ostend Airport’s financial feasibility came to light again when independent environmental groups again demanded that an investigation be held as to how and why licenses were issued to run both Ostend and Antwerp (Deurne) airports.
Have officials turned a blind eye on license issue?
It’s no secret that Ostend Airport is not a money maker and that operations there are basically centred around sporadic cargo operations. The airport has faced quite some criticism during the past month by independent working groups on their demand to have the night ban regulations relaxed so that more flights can be performed.
The ‘Working Group on the Impact of Ostend Airport on the Environment’ (WILOO) and other environmental agencies have been questioning the night flight conditions for some years. They have now come up with a claim that possibly the Flemish officials and Ostend and Antwerp airport managers have not adhered to the conditions previously laid down with regards to the issuance of licenses to run both airports.
The WILOO members further claim that there has been a large misuse of taxpayer’s money and that this fact is being kept under wraps by those officials responsible for Ostend and Antwerp airports.
Losing money since day one
Ostend Airport managers are surely doing their best in order to attract additional airline operators to the airport. It’s not an easy task considering the present global trade slowdown and the strong competition presented by Ostend’s neighbouring airports of Liege, Brussels and even Maastricht. Therefore, essential for them to have more leeway as far as night operations are concerned.
The WILOO study states that both Ostend and Antwerp airports have been losing money for some years and that no-one in government circles has wanted to take notice of this and that the license to run the airports which was granted to the French company, EGIS SA, was issued under false pretenses.
The claim is that although the airports only generated 17 million euros in aviation related revenue between 2015-2017, that 32 million euros in subsidies were paid out. Taxpayer money down the drain say WILOO officials. Normally such a situation would not be a subject of much dissent. However, WILOO claim that the Flemish government did not act according to the Flemish LOM-LEM decree issued in parliament as regards the privatization of both Ostend and Antwerp airports.
Operator EGIS played foul, BBL claims
In a statement which CargoForwarder Global received, Erik Grietens of Bond Beter Leefmileu (Environmental Agency) claims that: “The privatization of those local airports was arranged at the start of the current legislature in such a way that all cost remained with the government, and the possible profitable gains went to the French operator EGIS SA. So, millions of taxpayer’s money flow to the loss-making regional airports, even though they have a strong negative impact on air quality and climate change.”
According to WILOO figures, Ostend Airport has an official value of just over 192 million euros, but EGIS SA for example only paid the government a fee of 226,943 euros in 2017. This represents a very marginal 0.12% return for the Flemish government.
It is further claimed that the story is the same for Antwerp Airport. Value here is put at 115,367 million euros and EGIS SA only pays an average of 250,000 euros each year.
All of this, they say, is the result of EGIS SA not having presented the correct figures and documents in their application to run both airports. Some say that they purposely excluded buildings and other infrastructure issues when applying and that Belgian officials turned a “blind eye” to all of this.
Were illegal documents presented to officials?
All of the above, whether true or not, does not help Ostend or Antwerp airport managers to gain new business. Ostend’s managers are said to have informed the Flemish government that they plan to have a 400,000-ton annual air cargo turnover within the next four years. An almost impossible target to reach considering that last year they managed just about 28,000 tons, as well the competition factor and the general slowdown in air cargo. Or, is this statement meant to convince officials to relax the night ban even further?
An official appeal has now been made by the combined action groups to the Belgian Attorney General stating that: “There are indications that criminal offenses may have been committed in the context of the decision of the Flemish government of 24.10.2014 on the capital increase of the LOM’s and the subsequent notarial deeds.”
The final question remains as to whether the current construction will pass EU scrutiny or whether more taxpayer’s money will be squandered to keep both airports alive.
Let’s wait and see what comes out of that or if after the upcoming elections in Belgium a new government will take action!
John Mc Donagh
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