Finland's local airports fear for future as number of air travelers nosedives

2021-07-17 12:05:42 GMT2021-07-17 20:05:42(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

HELSINKI, July 17 (Xinhua) -- While Helsinki-Vantaa Airport has in recent years strengthened its position as an international gateway to Europe, the future of many of the country's domestic airports looks gloomy.

Finland's smaller cities are facing the prospect of losing their airports as the number of air travelers has dropped significantly and the airport operators find it increasingly difficult to finance their operations.

These days, domestic travelers increasingly opt for the country's fast, safe and reliable train services, which take them from city center to city center without the need for them to get to and from a local airport.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, a further heavy blow.

According to the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, while the country's ten domestic airports registered growth in passenger traffic numbers between 2013 and 2019, five airports had already reported double-digit percentage declines. Tampere-Pirkkala Airport, the country's second largest, topped the latter list with a 52 percent drop.

According to a recent prediction by Traficom, of Finland's 19 airports not counting that of the capital Helsinki, only the one near the northern smart city of Oulu and four others near tourist locations in northern Finland can expect an increase in passenger traffic numbers in this decade.

Earlier this spring, Finland's flag carrier Finnair stopped flying to five domestic airports. In order to keep the struggling airports afloat, the Finnish government has arranged for state-subsidized flights operated by smaller carriers to use them until the end of this year.

However, Tiia Orjasniemi, acting director for markets at Traficom, told Xinhua that these services are not planned to be extended. "It would require a political decision to continue next year."

Finnish law allows the state-owned airport operator Finavia to close an airport if it is not used commercially for at least one year. At the beginning of July, Finavia pulled out from the airport of the northwestern city of Enontekio.

Many of the country's airport cities fear the same fate. Local businesses argue that air connectivity offers a lifeline for them as they depend heavily on same-day connections between their location and continental European cities via Helsinki.

Faced with the loss of its airport, Enontekio stepped in as the new owner and the municipality now tries to attract tourist charter flights for the post-pandemic period. Back in 2019, Pori, a city on the west coast of Finland, spent roughly 500 euros (590 U.S. dollars) per traveler flying in and out of the local airport in municipal subsidy. In the southern city of Lappeenranta, a municipal foundation has maintained the local airport since 2016. Fifty percent of the costs are covered by the state.

However, the efforts to keep the local airports afloat through subsidized flights have elicited rounds of criticism.

Jani Jolkkonen, senior vice president for airport networks at Finavia, does not see subsidized flights justifiable in the long run.

He told the business daily Kauppalehti recently that in the post-pandemic world, air transport operators may need to reduce the number of same-day return flights to continental Europe. Moreover, he said, Finland's current plans to extend its high-speed train network in the south of the country are bound to further reduce the demand for flights.

Furthermore, critics also argue that while subsidized air travel has a demonstrably negative effect on the environment, it is justified to subsidize the operation of the country's environmentally friendly long-haul sleeper trains. Enditem