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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 21:19 GMT
Depressed region fears Ryanair exit

By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter in Charleroi

Ryanair route map
Charleroi is Ryanair's hub in Continental Europe

There are no buts about it: Charleroi airport would be nothing without Ryanair.

Its corporate colours, blue and yellow, are pasted all over the terminal walls, only sporadically giving way to the logos of a handful of fringe firms that rely totally on the Irish airline's presence.

Spread down a long wall in the tiny terminal are three car rental desks, a taxi and bus transfer desk, a news agent, and a small shop that offers casual fashion to price-conscious Ryanair customers.

Shopkeeper Uzek Havane seems to be very clear about what Ryanair is trying to do here at its Continental European hub.

Like the airline, Ms Havane works hard to offer good deals with no frills to customers who appreciate value for money.

"People will shop if we offer a discount," said Havane, before duly declaring that everything in the shop is suddenly half price.

Price sensitive

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary built his entire empire by offering discounts on flights, predominantly between provincial European airports close to major cities.

In so doing, he helped create a new class of business traveller, as typified by Teong Lim, a manager with the machine tools maker Caterpillar, who regularly jets between the company's factory in Gosselies, just outside Charleroi and its subsidiary Perkins Engines Company in Peterborough, UK.

Industrial complex near Charleroi airport
Industrial estates have sprung up around the airport providing work

"Business is becoming increasingly cost conscious," Mr Lim insisted during this morning's flight from Stanstead.

"My team will need to justify it if they don't want to fly a budget airline."

And Mr O'Leary's formula is still gaining friends.

"I normally fly British Airways or Lufthansa, and you can't even begin to compare prices," an American business woman at Charleroi airport said.

"I paid less than 60 euros for a return ticket, and most of it was tax," she cheered.

Business basics

There is something remarkably honest about the distinct breed of business people that travels through Charleroi airport.

Absent are the slick suit-and-tie corporate characters who hide from the great unwashed in executive lounges at the more upmarket airports.

Instead, engineers and sales staff wearing windbreakers and button down shirts sit on plastic benches, working on their laptops and speaking into their mobile phones.

Although only 50 kilometres south of the European Commission's headquarters, Charleroi seems a world apart from Brussels' society of international bureaucrats with expense accounts and chauffeur driven cars.

Key component

The Wallonia province, where Charleroi airport is based, has become a natural home for industrialists, according to Benoit Moons, the head of the province's chamber of commerce.

Indeed, skirting the airport is a vast range of gleaming factories, warehouses and office buildings giving testimony to the renewed prosperity enjoyed by this formerly depressed region.

Businessmen working at Charleroi airport
Businessmen at Charleroi airport work hard on their laptops

"What you see around the airport, all the industrial zones with modern technology, didn't exist 15 or 20 years ago," said Mr Moons.

Industry has flourished in the region and helped it bounce back from the closure of its coal mines and steel and glass factories during the 1980s.

This has been achieved thanks to the concerted efforts of business people, politicians and social reformers hell-bent on shedding the region's troubled image, Mr Moons explained.

"The airport is part of this new image," he added, and as such "Ryanair is a piece in the puzzle", having created several hundred jobs both directly at the airport and indirectly, for example, in the form of jobs at nearby hotels and taxi firms.

No revolution

But despite the upbeat talk, Ryanair's presence has not provided a quick fix for all of the region's headaches.

It is still weighed down by unemployment of more than 20%, and crime remains a serious issue.

A visit to the rather large town of Charleroi gives a clear glimpse of a somewhat down-at-heel society when compared with its more urbane neighbour Brussels.

Charlerot street market
Charleroi town is not exactly a tourist magnet

There are few signs of tourists as they tend to get bussed straight out of the area, or head directly to Brussels and other European destinations. One local hotel included in its advert that Charleroi is "only 250 kilometres from EuroDisney".

And yet, Ryanair's importance to the region can hardly be exaggerated.

The airline says 2.5 million travellers fly through Charleroi airport a year thanks to its discounted routes, and as such it provides a healthy heart for the local business community.

And despite the European Commission's ruling that some of the payments Ryanair has received to operate out of Charleroi were illegal state subsidies; despite Ryanair's own warnings of an imminent crisis, there is optimism among some at the airport.

"It would mean unemployment for me if Ryanair was to leave, but I am not afraid," said newsagent Antony Soletto.

"I think Ryanair will stay, regardless of what the European Commission says or does."

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