A leading figure at the European Shippers’ Council has urged the European Union (EU) against implementing any measures in the airline industry that could be deemed “protectionist” and unfairly favouring EU carriers.

The comments, made by Rogier Spoel, policy manager at the Air Transport Council, an arm of the European Shippers’ Council, were issued in response to proposals being debated in the EU to combat alleged unfair competitive practices by foreign airlines.

In recent years, some European airlines have stated that they believe they are not operating on a level playing field, and have alleged some carriers, notably those based in the Middle East, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad, receive unfair government support and even operate using subsidies, as reported by Reuters.

These recent proposals are designed to usher in a complaints procedure that would give European Airlines a mechanism to report what they view as unfair or discriminatory practices to the European Commission. These unfair practices could be carried out in a third country or non-EU country, or perhaps that an airline is being subsidised. Should the EU Commission find in favour of the complaint, penalties incurred include a hefty fine or withdrawing some services and the rights of the overseas airline in Europe.

It is the fear of reducing competition that most worries bodies in shipping circles. Spoel explains, “First off, we are in favour of a sustainable and healthy air cargo market. Competitors that use illegal state aid to maintain unsustainable routes hurt a level playing field within a healthy market. However, we are very critical that this regulation may swing to the side of a protectionist measure favouring EU carriers.”

Turning to the proposed penalties for any violations, he added, “There are talks about forms of penalties for non-EU carriers who get certain advantages with slot allocation, refuelling and ground handling services. If these benefits are penalised they should also apply to EU carriers, because I know EU carriers get certain advantages as well.”

It was reported in The Australian that a spokeswoman for Emirates welcomed the European Commission proposals and that they went some way to promoting fair competition in global aviation. However, it was also reported that some EU countries have echoed Spoel’s sentiments and feared protectionism.

Protectionism in the airline sector by the EU was an issue Spoel was keen to address head on. He concluded, “So bottom line, we are in favour of this regulation for creating a level playing field and healthy competition between carriers, but against the regulation if it swings to something that could be viewed as protectionist measures for the EU (legacy) Carriers. Therefore, we are emphasising a balanced position on this regulation.”

Airports Council International Europe, a body which represents Europe’s airports, welcomed the proposals, citing the facilitation of the delivery of facts and figures in a debate to prove unfair practices. Sunny Ho, of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council, noted that sometimes it is often problematic to differentiate between “healthy competition” and “unhealthy competition” and that subsidy in the transport sector could be in the forms of financial arrangements, technology encouragement and assistance and infrastructure development.