Running for the Border: Flight Tax Pushes Germans to Tiny Dutch Airport

By Julia Amalia Heyer

The recent introduction of a flight tax has inspired hundreds of thousands of Germans to avoid airports in their own country. Instead many are saving money by using a small, but now booming, airport across the border in the Netherlands.

Passengers board an airplane at Maastricht Aachen Airport. Zoom
Chris Keulen / DER SPIEGEL

Passengers board an airplane at Maastricht Aachen Airport.

The airport looks like a Lego somebody tossed out onto a Dutch field. The main hall has six check-in counters and two bathrooms, while the gates are numbered glass doors leading directly onto the tarmac.

Inside, Hans and Marianne Bruns sit in blue plastic chairs, holding hands, neatly framed by two small rolling suitcases with the handles extended. The married couple from the western German city of Euskirchen is waiting for their flight to Girona, Spain. Hans Bruns, 77, sums up the principle behind the Maastricht Aachen Airport succinctly: "It's like a convenience store here -- you go in, you get through, you're gone." The Cologne Bonn Airport would actually be the closest airport for the couple, but they only fly from Maastricht.

Many share the Bruns' preference, and shuttle buses have been running since June from Cologne and Aachen in Germany over the Dutch border to Maastricht. "If everything goes well, we'll have a fridge, too," declares bus driver Willi Kärcher, who is parked in front of the Lego-like airport. He gazes at his floral-patterned, soft-sided cooler in a way that suggests its days are numbered.

The shuttle company certainly has the potential to do very good business here, since most of the customers who fly from Maastricht are German. In recent months, many people have come to prefer driving over to the small Dutch province of Limburg over traveling from the more convenient Cologne Bonn or Düsseldorf airports. From Maastricht, they can fly to Barcelona, Spain; Porto, Portugal; or Tenerife in the Canary Islands. They can also fly to Berlin from here, since flights to the capital from many of the closer German airports have grown more expensive or simply aren't scheduled any longer.

Role Reversal

The reason for the changes is a new German air travel tax that came into effect this January. Airlines pay per passenger, with graduated rates according to the length of the journey: €8 ($11.50) for short haul flights; €25 for medium hauls, for example to Israel or Egypt; and €45 for long haul flights. That's too much for many airlines, particularly budget airlines like Ryanair, which would rather station its jets in the Canary Islands than at Berlin's Schönefeld Airport. Frankfurt-Hahn, another small airport frequented by budget airlines, has lost 180,000 passengers to the tax. Meanwhile airports such as Maastricht and Eindhoven, in the Netherlands but close to the German border, are booming.

Christine Peschel, 29, came here all the way from the state of Hesse, a bit further east in Germany, with her son and her mother. Their destination is the island of Rhodes in Greece. "I'm not going to pay €500 to fly from Frankfurt," Peschel says. As for the drive here and the cost of parking, she says, "It's worth it. And my mother is bringing the car back." In the past, she says, she sometimes came over to the Netherlands to visit the country's cannabis "coffeeshops." Now, she comes for the airport.

"We're truly grateful to the German government," says Sander Heijmans, director of the Maastricht Aachen Airport -- so named because the Chamber of Commerce in Aachen, a nearby German city, hoped to purchase a little more eminence by sharing the name. Heijmans sounds more astonished than ironic. "I thought they'd learned from our experiences," he adds.

The Netherlands employed the same concept for almost exactly 12 months. In 2008, the government introduced a flight tax, slightly higher than the one currently in place in Germany. Dutch passengers promptly fled from increased prices at their own airports, flying instead from Cologne Bonn, Düsseldorf, or even Frankfurt. Maastricht Aachen was near bankruptcy, but it was saved by the financial crisis. The government in The Hague overturned the flight tax in 2009 as an "economic stimulation measure." The move proved successful, and German and Dutch airports have since switched roles.

Flying High

Heijmans, 51, sits with his sleeves rolled up in his office above the single terminal. The room is light and spacious, and roughly half the size of the airport's entire waiting hall. "We're among the five fastest growing airports in Europe," he says, gazing confidently out the window at the fields of Limburg. "We've attained national importance."

The director's statements display the self-assurance of a successful businessman. His airport has experienced a nearly unbelievable growth rate of 72 percent in recent months and expects at least a quarter million more passengers in 2011 than in the previous year. Most of the parking lot's 150 spots are constantly occupied, at a price of €5 per hour.

But growth can be a fairly abstract concept, as seen in the lines of cars turning off the A2 highway and pulling up to the block of red corrugated sheet metal that serves as an airport. The road up to the airport looks more like a gas station driveway, and despite the onslaught of foreign customers fleeing taxes in their own country, its appearance is unlikely to change any time soon. The first area undergoing expansion is freight operations, Heijmans explains, because "cargo isn't as temperamental as passengers."

Still, he harbors dreams of luring Lufthansa as a client and becoming an international hub. He's already won over Lufthansa subsidiary Germanwings, which introduced twice daily flights from Maastricht to Berlin in March -- and cut back on its flights from Cologne in exchange.

At Maastricht's Hotel Tulip Inn, which promotes its "direct view of the runway," Heijmans' dream has already come true. Four clocks hang behind the reception desk, displaying the local time at four of the world's aviation hubs: New York LaGuardia. London Heathrow. Tokyo Narita. And Maastricht Aachen.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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