Hundreds of EU airports, ports to benefit from simpler subsidy rules

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Hundreds of small airports and ports around Europe are set to benefit from simpler EU state aid rules allowing governments to grant public funds to help them expand and create jobs.

The new rules, part of a broad reform by the European Commission to allow EU governments have more say on how they subsidize small facilities and minor projects, could benefit more than 400 small airports in the 28-country bloc.

The move would also free up resources at the EU competition enforcer for big cases.

“Today’s changes will save them (EU countries) time and trouble when investing in ports and airports, culture and the EU’s outermost regions, whilst preserving competition,” European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

There are more than 420 airports in the EU with fewer than 3 million passengers yearly, accounting for some 80 percent of all airports in the bloc but only about 13 percent of air traffic.

The Commission has in recent years ordered governments to claw back millions of euros in illegal subsidies given to airports and airlines such as Ryanair, TUI's TUIT.L German carrier TUIfly and Lufthansa's LHAG.DE Germanwings, which is now called Eurowings.

Under the new rules, authorities can cover the operating costs of small airports handling up to 200,000 passengers annually, which make up almost half of all airports in the EU.

The new rules also allow EU authorities to invest up to 150 million euros ($166.3 million) in maritime ports and up to 50 million euros in inland ports without seeking prior approval from the EU competition enforcer.

State aid for start-ups will be allowed for up to five years, while companies in remote regions will also find it easier to apply for support. The outermost regions are French overseas territories, Spain’s Canary Islands and Portugal’s Azores and Madeira.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Philip Blenkinsop