Investors try to keep Rygge airport open

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A group of high-profile investors, businessmen and a former defense minister are actively trying to ward off the looming shutdown of commercial airline operations at the Rygge airport south of Moss. They have political support from both state and local governments, but lack any firm deals to ensure more takeoffs and landings.

The Rygge airport at Moss is served almost entirely by Ryanair, which has come under severe criticism by labour organizations and politicians this week. Now state authorities are vowing a full review of Ryanair's operations in Norway. PHOTO: Moss Lufthavn Rygge

The Rygge airport at Moss has been served almost entirely by Ryanair, which decided to stop flying from Rygge when the government imposed an airline seat tax. That prompted Rygge’s owners to announce that the airport would close to civilian traffic from November 1. Military operations will continue and now some major investors are keen on keeping civilian operations going, too. PHOTO: Moss Lufthavn Rygge

“This is an investment of the heart, based on faith, hope and love,” one of the investors, Oslo financier Jan Petter Sissener, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday. “If there will a need for further financing, I’ll need to make a more thorough investment decision.”

He’s put up NOK 50,000 (USD 6,000) so far while the group itself has raised NOK 1.4 million, a token amount of the capital that likely would be needed to make their airport rescue project fly. But all involved are known as serious investors with solid track records, while the person they’ve appointed chairman of the board of their fledgling airport operations company, Rygge Airport AS, is former Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen. She’s a long-time Labour Party politician who’s from the area near Rygge and now works for a PR and communications firm.

Strøm-Erichsen said the group has already had meetings with aviation authorities and government ministries involved. “We have met the transport minister and a state secretary in the defense ministry,” Strøm-Erichsen told DN. “They are positive.”

Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen expressed support for the project as did Prime Minister Erna Solberg during radio interviews on NRK. Other Members of Parliament also said they were glad private investors had come forth who, as MP Ulf Leirstein of the Progress Party said, “are serious players who think they can operate civilian aviation at Rygge.”

Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen was a former defense- and health minister in the last left-center government headed by the Labour Party's Jens Stoltenberg, who now is secretary general of NATO. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen was a former defense- and health minister in the last left-center government headed by the Labour Party’s Jens Stoltenberg, who now is secretary general of NATO. Now she’ll lead the board of the operating company trying to keep Rygge Airport open. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Leirstein harshly criticized the current owners of the airport for blaming the looming closure on Ryanair’s pending pullout. Ryanair in turn blamed the state government for imposing a new airline seat tax that adds up to NOK 88 (around USD 11) to the price of a ticket. Ryanair, however, will continue to fly from the Torp airport Sandefjord and is launching flights from Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen for the first time.

The new investor group also includes Riulf Rustad, former right-hand man to Norwegian industrialist and investor Christen Sveaas; Sverre Leiro, former head of grocery retailing giant NorgesGruppen; Pareto founder Widar Salbuvik and Morten Astrup, a Norwegian shipping heir and financier who lives in Switzerland and commutes to London by flying his own private plane. Astrup is also the brother of Nikolai Astrup, a Member of Parliament who heads the Conservative Party’s Oslo chapter.

Their political connections are strong but they admit to not having landed any airline agreements as yet. They also have yet to meet the largest shareholders in the airport, the Thon real estate group and industrial firm Orkla. The mayor of the City of Moss, which also has ownership interests, was positive, though, and Strøm-Erichsen said a meeting was scheduled for next week.

‘Allowed to try’
The group aims to take over the airport as a “going concern,” said Knut Johannessen, the pilot and businessman tapped to run the operating company. They all think the Østfold area’s 1.6 million residents provide a sufficient market for airline operations. Analyst Hans-Erik Jacobsen of Swedbank said “they’re allowed to try,” but that finding enough business to make Rygge profitable will be tough.

“The airlines will evaluate price, access and the passenger market,” Jacobsen told DN. He doubts SAS will be interested and notes that both SAS and Norwegian are established at OSL Gardermoen. “Maybe some other low-fare carriers like EasyJet or Vueling are more likely,” Jacobsen mused.

Norwegian Air wasn’t ruling out operations at Rygge again. “If operations are secured, we will evaluate offering flights from there,” Norwegian spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen told DN. He was cautious, however.

“We had a quite large operation at Rygge a few years ago, but experienced that demand was too low to maintain it as a major destination,” Sandaker-Nielsen said. “I don’t think we can promise that we’d come back with full force if Rygge continues as an airport.”

Astrup and several others cited environmental aspects of using Rygge, since it’s farther south and closer to European destinations than OSL Gardermoen while not being much farther from Oslo itself. Around 500 airport employees facing layoff when the airport is due to close from November 1, after Ryanair’s last flight, were also encouraged.

“It would be great if someone can keep the airport operating,” Erlend Larssen, who represents around 140 ground workers at the airport, told DN. “But so far I think it all sounds a bit optimistic.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund