Another airport looks like it might bite the dust as Ryanair bids adieu to St Étienne

30 October, 2017

The 'lack of airport capacity' in Europe gets many people in a lather, with dire warnings of passengers potentially being turned away in the not-too-distant-future if fresh capacity by way of runways or new airports is not added as a matter of urgency.

But most countries have plenty of spare capacity at airports that are relatively poorly used. So it distressing to hear of functioning airports closing down or being left with few or no commercial services which confines them to general aviation activities and, if they are lucky, the occasional business jet.

In the last couple of decades in the UK, Ipswich, Blackpool and Plymouth airports have closed for example, while Coventry Airport, which for a short while handled close to one million passengers per annum, lost all its commercial services. The same has happened to Magdeburg-Cochstedt Airport in northeast Germany, which closed in Sep-2016; Bromma Airport in Stockholm will eventually be phased out by 2022, while several are threatened in Italy and across Eastern Europe.

Saint Étienne in the Massif Central region of east-central France could be the latest after Ryanair suspended its Fes (Morocco)-Saint Etienne and Porto-Saint Etienne services from 28-Oct-2017. Saint Etienne Bouthéon Airport will then only operate (occasional) charter and private flights. The airport's management plans to convene on 08-Nov-2017 to discuss new opportunities for the facility.

MAP - Saint Étienne is located in the Massif Central region of east-central FranceSource: Google Maps

Saint Étienne is a fairly small city of some 175,000 people but it has a metropolitan population of over half a million and it sits directly on the trunk road connecting Lyon and Toulouse, the third and fourth largest cities in France. It came to prominence as an arms manufacturing town in the 16th to 19th centuries, then as a mining centre and more recently for bicycle manufacturing.

The publicly-owned airport has promoted itself as being "ideally placed in the centre of France to reach all Europe, the north of Africa and the Middle East".

The local football team, AS Saint-Étienne, is arguably the most successful in French football history, having won ten Ligue 1 titles, six Cup titles and many other awards in its chequered history. The club's ten league titles are the most professional league titles won by a French club.

While it still plays in Ligue 1 its golden era was the 1960s and 1970s and it unearthed such notable players as Michel Platini and Laurent Blanc, both of whom went on to manage the national team as did one-time Saint-Étienne player/managers Aimé Jacquet (who coached France to victory in the 1998 World Cup) and Jacques Santini, who did the same with the 2003 Confederations Cup.

Within a football context the disappearance of scheduled passenger services at Saint-Étienne is like Manchester, Madrid, Milan or Munich not being able to offer them.

MAP - Saint Étienne Bouthéon Airport is currently linked to three destinations in North Africa and one in Portugal, but Ryanair's cancellations will leave Atlas Atlantique as its sole operator from next weekSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG

In recent years the airport, which is 12 km (seven miles) northwest of the town, has been kept afloat by services offered by Ryanair, Turkey's Pegasus Airlines, and Atlas Atlantique Airlines and some of the routes (e.g. Fes, Oran and Sétif) existed primarily to serve France's burgeoning immigrant community. The airport may have shot itself in the foot when, earlier this year, it decided to cancel all subsidies that supported low-cost airlines. Pegasus has already gone and it appears that Atlas Atlantique will soon join it, too.

What will happen to the airport if "new opportunities" cannot be found in the aviation sector? Often they become housing projects. That was the fate of Ipswich Airport and it is the projected one for Plymouth and Stockholm Bromma airports while Blackpool was at least able to reopen with limited services in 2015. Only time will tell!