The board of directors in charge of the Rygge airport in Moss, south of Oslo, announced Tuesday it had decided to shut down the airport to commercial civilian traffic from November 1. That’s when the only major airline serving it, Ryanair, has said it will severely cut or halt flights entirely, to avoid paying a new Norwegian airline seat tax of NOK 88 (USD 10.60).
The controversial airline seat tax was initially proposed by Norway’s Liberal Party last fall and reluctantly accepted by Norway’s conservative minority coalition government when it needed the Liberals’ support to win approval in Parliament for its state budget. The Liberals portrayed the tax as an environmental and climate-friendly measure, aimed at reducing airline traffic, although that’s been highly debated. Most airlines plan on simply passing the tax on to customers, who critics argue aren’t likely to cancel travel plans because of it.
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While most all the airlines serving Norway objected to the tax, Ryanair was the only one to threaten to stop flying from its Norwegian base at Rygge because of it. Ryanair also serves the Torp Airport in Sandefjord and has been negotiating to also start flying from Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. It will thus need to charge the new seat tax anyway, if it intends to stay in the Norwegian market.
It remains unclear whether the board of Moss Lufthavn Rygge is now merely calling Ryanair’s bluff. The board decided, at any rate, that it will close the airport to civilian commercial traffic if Ryanair follows through on its threat to dramatically cut flights or withdraw. Pål F Tandberg, chief executive for the civilian operations at Rygge, said the airport stands to lose nearly all its revenue base if Ryanair pulls out, and it would not be possible to keep operations going. Between 500 and 1,000 workers at Rygge will lose their jobs.
Tandberg blamed the new tax, the imposition of which recently was confirmed after EU officials ruled it did not violate any rules that also apply to Norwegian aviation. Uncertainty over the legality of the tax had prompted Finance Minister Siv Jensen to postpone imposing it until June 1, when it now will start being charged after the EU authorities gave it a green light.
Moss Mayor Tage Pettersen called the airport board’s decision “most unfortunate, but they had warned this could happen and they can go through with it. Now we have the terrible message that Rygge’s doors will shut on November 1. It will have dramatic consequences for a region that already has high unemployment.”
Prime Minister Erna Solberg claimed, however, that “no Norwegian airports are shut down because of a tax on flights. In this concrete example, it’s because Ryanair doesn’t want to use the airport at Rygge, allegedly because of the new tax, which is not stopping Ryanair from using other airports in Norway.”
Solberg, writing on social media Tuesday evening, claimed it was “unfortunate” that Rygge “appears to be so dependent on just one single player that repeatedly has put pressure on authorities, policies and aviation management all over Europe in order to avoid paying taxes and fees. This government won’t let itself be pressured by Ryanair over a tax that the Norwegian Parliament has approved and which in principle is part of a green shift.”
Ryanair initially refused to comment further on the announced shutdown of the airport that has served as Ryanair’s base in Norway. It later issued the following statement: “We note the announcement by Oslo Rygge Airport, following confirmation of the Norwegian Government’s ill-advised and damaging ‘environmental’ tax. We are currently reviewing our Norwegian operations in the context of Oslo Rygge’s announcement and the Government’s decision and will outline our position in the coming days.”
Ryanair has not commented on plans to start flying from OSL Gardermoen instead, where it has secured slots from September 1. “They (Ryanair) have ordered four arrivals and departures a day,” Guri Høeg Ulverud, communications chief for Norwegian airports authority Avinor, confirmed to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday evening. “We don’t know whether they’ll use them. The airline has to answer that itself.”