Additional public investment in Berlin airport cleared

On 3 August 2016, the European Commission cleared the public investment package for increasing capacity and making technical improvements to the Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport. According to the Commission, the German investment is on market terms and therefore does not qualify as state aid granted to developer and airport operator Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg.

The public investment, announced in early 2016, consisting of a €1.1 billion shareholder loan and a shareholder guarantee covering additional debt financing of up to €1.1 billion is considered to be on market terms (case SA. 41342). Even if the opening of the airport is delayed further or entails higher costs, the Commission’s stress-test found that the investment would remain profitable.

Construction of the airport started 10 years ago but suffered significant delays, calling for additional investments. By 2011, all three original Berlin airports had to be replaced by a single and expanded airport at the Schönefeld site. The airport is now set to open in the second half of 2017.

In 2009 and 2012, the Commission cleared previous public investments in the airport. In 2009, the Commission found that the initial investment constituted compatible state aid (case NN25/2009). In 2012, the Commission concluded that the additional investments did not constitute state aid as they were on market terms (case SA.35378). The Commission explained that the 2012 measures were necessary because of unexpected developments in the project, including a court victory for angry neighbors imposing additional investments for noise protection. Although the additional investments served the same purpose as the previously granted state aid in 2009, the Commission concluded that the new measure could reasonably be severed from the 2009 investment. As the 2012 measures could not have been foreseen and had only become necessary a considerable time after the first measure had elapsed, they could be assessed separately. This allowed the Commission to deem there was an absence of state aid regarding the 2012 measures, as opposed to the 2009 investments.

It should be noted that the Berlin airport case was considered in the revision of the 2005 EU Guidelines on state aid in the airport sector. Indeed, the European Commission had first considered forbidding all aid to large airports (above 5 million passengers per year) including investment aid. Due to the numerous negative reactions of Member States towards this dogmatic position, the Commission reviewed its draft and the EU Guidelines on state aid to airports and airlines, adopted in 2014. The Guidelines now authorize investment aid to large airports in exceptional circumstances such as in the case of the relocation of an airport.