BRUSSELS - Cut-price airline Ryanair said Jan. 9 it feared the outcome of a crucial EU investigation into its operations at Belgium's Charleroi Airport would "devastate" low-cost air travel in Europe.
Chief Executive Officer Michael O'Leary said there was nothing to change his view that the long-awaited ruling by the European Commission would go against the Irish carrier, Europe's biggest no-frills airline.
"A negative decision here will devastate Charleroi, will be bad for consumers and bad for low-cost air travel," he told reporters in Brussels after a two-day seminar organized by 27 regional airports from around the EU.
The European Union's executive arm is finalizing a probe into whether Ryanair's contract with the publicly owned airport at Charleroi, an hour's drive south of Brussels, amounts to illegal state aid. A decision is expected late this month or early next.
O'Leary said last month that a negative ruling would force Ryanair to switch to another European hub, saying two other unidentified airports were ready to take Charleroi's place.
But the Ryanair chief played down the impact on his company's business model of an adverse judgment from the commission.
"It would have no impact on Ryanair, in the same way that a negative decision in Strasbourg simply meant that the route got moved to Baden-Baden, where in fact we're doing better with a lower cost base," he said.
Ryanair is appealing against a court decision in the eastern French city that barred state subsidies for its Strasbourg-London service. In the meantime the carrier has switched to Baden-Baden just over the German border.
O'Leary said underused regional airports like Charleroi would pay the biggest price from a negative commission ruling.
"It indicates how ridiculous this whole investigation is in the first place. If Charleroi is privately owned there's no investigation. It's simply because it's publicly owned," he said.
"You have airports like Zavantem [the Belgian capital's principal airport] attempting to block the development of low fares in Brussels."
The seminar saw managers from the 27 second-tier airports line up to express serious concern about the ramifications of the commission probe.
In a joint statement, the airports said, "it seems necessary that [EU] competition rules are clarified and harmonized" for the benefit of European air travelers, who have benefited hugely from the cut-price operations.