What future does Flanders see for the airports in Antwerp, Ostend and Kortrijk? A new study shows that a complete shutdown is the best option, the opposition believes. But it is a very selective reading. What is certain is that the government must make clear choices in a very sensitive matter.
‘Please wait to cross the road,’ says Christof Defranq, operations manager at Kortrijk-Wevelgem International Airport (ILKW), as he gives me a tour of the 2-kilometre runway. He points up, and moments later a sleek sport plane dives out of the gray cloud cover, makes a smooth landing, and bulges in front of us.
Apart from business jets, it is mainly such planes that cross the skies in Kortrijk. ‘Business flights are our core business,’ says CEO of ILKW, Dirk Van Belleghem. ‘We get about 60 percent of our income from it. Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the 40,000 annual flights at the airport are carried out by the surrounding flight schools in a training context. In addition to the commercial flights, there are also pleasure flights using private aircraft.’
What is it about?
Different future scenarios for the Belgian regional airports were examined in a social cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the Flemish government. The government must now decide how to proceed.
What’s the problem?
Several politicians and activists would rather see the airports disappear. They refer to the analysis where a closure is described as a socially beneficial scenario. But that is a selective reading of what the report suggests.
A complete closure is generally not seen as a realistic option, as it points to the enormous untapped potential of the airports. Presumably, the choice falls on a scenario between a closure and extreme growth.
Around the runway are pilots from various aviation groups and flight schools with space for the 120 aircraft that have their home base in Kortrijk. Many are small models for around six to nine people, but there are also jets, the largest of which can carry up to 20 passengers. ‘Our long runway is an asset that enables us to land such larger aircraft,’ says Van Belleghem.
But despite this asset, the airport’s future is being questioned here and there, just like the two other regional Flemish airports in Antwerp and Ostend. Politicians and activists who would rather lose the airports than get rich screen with a recently published Social Cost Benefit Analysis (MKBA) commissioned by the Flemish government. In that report, various future scenarios for the airports were examined. The social impact of each choice – such as traffic nuisance or environmental pollution – was translated into an economic gain or loss compared to the current situation.
Regional business airports can be a driving force for innovation.
In both Antwerp and Kortrijk, the closure appears as the scenario that provides the greatest social added value. In Ostend it is the second ‘best’ social choice. The Council of Ministers has discussed the report and is now faced with the task of preparing a strategic vision paper on the Flemish airport policy.
For the government, it is a thorny file. It must make the difficult balance between, on the one hand, the financial benefit of the airports and, on the other hand, the nuisance for the environment and the local residents. But the government is also an economically involved party. The airports of Ostend and Antwerp, and in the long term also the airports of Kortrijk, are managed in a complex model of public-private partnership. The state is responsible for the investments in basic infrastructure such as runways, while a private concession holder is responsible for the operation and daily maintenance. The state pays an annual subsidy to the operator for security and fire services.
This mix of interests makes it difficult to summarize the social impact in a single figure. SCBA also makes the case for relaxing environmental regulations to allow airports to grow strongly. All in all, it provides social benefits for the three airports, which are even greater in Ostend than in the closure scenario.
However, it is not correct to present the calculation exercise from SCBA as a hard scientific conclusion. An SCBA is a tool for mapping the social consequences of policy, but not an all-encompassing policy instrument. Certain qualitative elements or strategic choices cannot be translated into a monetary value and have therefore not been quantified.
“For example, what is the value of the pilot training you can follow in Antwerp, or of the fact that Ostend is also used by the army and the coast guard? How much is it worth to the company to have a spare airport when Brussels is closed? What is the added value of turning an airport into a future hub for taxi drones? All those things have an impact, but cannot be quantified’, says an aviation expert.
According to most observers, a complete closure of the airports is not realistic, and the report says so in so many words. “The closure of all three airports at the same time is not a well-considered option from a strategic point of view,” it says literally. And also: ‘It would probably be better to continue with the active expansion of the three Flemish regional airports (…).’
The other extreme scenario, that of unrestrained growth, is not very realistic either. This would mean that the relatively small airports would burst at the seams. Østende airport, for example, had to handle six to seven times more passengers and ten times more cargo than today. The government will therefore probably choose scenarios that are somewhere between closure and extreme growth. It appears from the report that there will still be a need for subsidies in that case.
The central question is which strategic vision lies behind the government’s choice. Will everything remain the same, or will new interpretations and revenue models be sought and cooperation with other sectors and governments? The SCBA report also provides a laundry list of suggestions for this. These received much less media attention than the closure scenario, but they offer tools for reconciling the opposing interests.
For example, there are proposals to prioritize sustainability, for example by charging rates based on CO₂ emissions and noise nuisance. One striking proposal is a significant increase in landing charges for private aircraft. “Today, these rights are calculated exclusively on tonnage and per passenger. These are very low amounts for a private jet, especially for users who are not particularly price sensitive. Who cares about an extra 100 euros if you pay 30,000 euros for a flight to Malaga? These rates can easily be ten or twenty times higher. And you can give environmentally friendly appliances a discount’, says an expert.
Specifically for Ostend-Bruges airport, the authors recommend a ‘reconfiguration’ for tourist flights and low-cost airlines. The current focus on freight is less interesting for a peripheral location like Ostend, especially now that the UK is no longer part of the EU, it says.
Another proposal is to reduce costs by investing in a virtual control tower that can remotely monitor traffic at various airports. Wallonia is the example here with a ‘remote tower’ in Namur that can monitor both the airports in Liège and Charleroi. It requires the Flemish government to sit down with the federal government, which is responsible for air traffic control.
In consultation with the federal level, another proposal can be immediately discussed: deepening the cooperation with Brussels Airport, regardless of whether it is combined with a Flemish participation or not. Three quarters of Zaventem airport is owned by a consortium of investors and one quarter by the federal government (FPIM).
Business also points to the untapped potential of the Flemish airports. The employer organization Voka put Geert Noel’s Econopolis agency to work on drawing up possible scenarios for Antwerp airport. Noels is in favor of investing the current grants in better connections and in future-oriented development. According to him, the airport can also become a center of excellence for pilot training, drones, battery technology and hydrogen applications.
Meanwhile, at Wevelgem airport, we see how a family gets out of a taxi in the kiss & ride zone. An airport employee will immediately take care of the luggage. They can go directly to their flight via the small quiet airport building. For flights in the Schengen zone in a limited company, a baggage or customs check is not necessary.
There is a customs service available for larger groups, but things run smoothly there as well. ‘It’s not like in Zaventem, where you are pushed into the plane like cattle,’ laughs Van Belleghem. That comfort comes with a price. A private jet quickly costs 5,000 euros per flight hour.
Still, things went well during the pandemic. “Unlike the big airports, we were usually still able to offer flights and nobody wants to get on an overcrowded plane anymore,” says Philippe Bodson, owner of the private airline ASL Group. He has recently invested in a new warehouse in Wevelgem. ‘As an additional effect, we now also get more regular tourists who, among other things, want to avoid the queues.’
Bodson shares the vision that regional business airports such as Kortrijk-Wevelgem can be a driving force for innovation. “Business aviation is fertile ground for new technologies. This is where innovation starts,’ he says. In recent months, ASL Group itself has invested in electric aircraft and in a number of passenger drones (eVTOL).
Electric planes are getting cheaper and can fly longer and longer. Because they can also land at smaller airports, according to some experts, they can become an alternative to long car and train journeys. “By 2025, electric flights of up to 250 kilometers with five passengers are expected to be available,” says Bodson.
In the even longer term, in 2040, he sees hydrogen as ‘the ultimate solution for aviation’. The consulting firm Deloitte calculated that hydrogen-powered aircraft would drastically reduce the climate footprint, but also become heavier, which weighs on flight range. Here, too, a network of regional airports can play a decisive role in facilitating environmentally friendly air travel.
Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft are of course still far in the future, while decisions must now be made about environmental permits and multi-million subsidies. The focus on a future strategy also means that the government must dare to question the current operating model and enter into difficult discussions with private partners, local residents and municipalities. ‘There is little enthusiasm for this file in Flemish politics,’ says the aviation expert. “But look at the Netherlands, which has developed a coherent strategic aviation plan, or at the successes in Wallonia. Tens of thousands of jobs have been created there over the years in Liège and Charleroi.’