Air transport is essential to the connectivity of Europe’s regions for social and economic cohesion. It is part of the interrelated entities that constitute the regional ecosystem and plays a social role for communities in several mainland regions, outermost regions and islands, and also contributes to the economic development of those regions (increasing tourism, investment and employment).

Regional carriers and regional airports have been hugely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, several routes have been dropped as they are no longer financially viable and some regions – especially islands, outermost and peripheral – are facing significant problems due to the current lack of connectivity. At present, some domestic and regional routes are still at risk due to financial difficulties.

Greater certainty about the conditions of travel is needed to restore passenger confidence. The patchwork of national rules and the rhythm to which they continuously change make it impossible to plan, which is hugely detrimental for tourism and business alike. A co-ordinated EU roadmap to restart travel must be adopted swiftly, with the EU Digital COVID Certificate (DCC) modalities implemented in a coherent and consistent way across the whole of the EU.

Adopt a specific approach and adapt constraints for regional air transport. There is the need to develop an effective EU policy to ensure proper connectivity in all regions, both for freight and passenger traffic, whilst fostering the sector’s sustainability. The policy should establish explicit air transport connectivity objectives between airlines and airports. Lowering airport visit costs (such as through public ownership or economic regulation) and ensuring effective airport charges for domestic services (lower landing charges, fuel discounts and so on) may incentivise airlines to deploy more domestic routes.

Blanket bans on short-haul flights can harm regional connectivity, while not providing the intended environmental benefits and hampering the zero-carbon potential of the sector. Such bans only make sense where indisputably better environmental alternatives are available. Aviation cannot be systematically replaced by high-speed trains due to a lack of rail infrastructure and uncompetitive connection times. Building the necessary rail infrastructure would come with its own CO2 impacts, as well as damaging effects on wildlife habitats and local communities. Equally, short-haul flight will be the first to implement zero-carbon technologies and offer passengers a solution both in terms of climate change impact and connectivity.

A review of the public service obligation (PSO) regime in Europe is needed. PSO routes have to remain a key instrument for Europe’s connectivity and social and economic cohesion. Maintaining these essential routes is vital for the future viability of regional airlines and the connectivity and services they provide for the communities they serve. This can be done by providing emergency PSO routes and reviewing the criteria (frequencies and other) for PSOs operated commercially prior to the crisis. Consideration needs to also be given to simplify and expedite the, currently slow, procedure for approving PSOs and to extend the current list of PSO routes.