Meet the European Parliament Shuttle: How MEPs Fly

May 23, 2019

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More than 400 million citizens of the 28 European Union member countries are going to the polls this week, between May 23 and 26, to elect the 751 members of the European Parliament. That’s 28 countries because the United Kingdom is still a member of the European Union, pending delays and uncertainty in the Brexit process, so Britons still get to vote.

Over the next five years, those 751 Members of the European Parliament, plus their staffs, will be splitting a significant share of their time between the two cities where the parliament’s plenary sessions take place: Brussels and Strasbourg. This dual-city system is often criticized due to the cost of relocating about once a month the entire European Parliament from Brussels all the way to Strasbourg.

The move involves several thousand people, including MEPs, assistants, administrative staff, journalists and lobbyists, in addition to several tons of documents and material. On the weeks when there is plenary session in Strasbourg, the European Parliament charters two Thalys high-speed trains, with capacity for 1,100 passengers altogether. This dedicated train service departs Brussels on Mondays for the 430 km journey, and returns on Thursdays, once the sessions are over.

Those who prefer to fly between the two cities, or are in a rush, have a unique option: the European Parliament is possibly the only one in the world that runs its own air-shuttle service. But don’t get the idea that the EU is actually running an airline. The service is essentially one aircraft, an ATR72 turboprop with 66 seats, all in economy class.

The ATR runs two return services between the two cities on the weeks when the European Parliament meets in Strasbourg. The 1h 15min service runs exclusively for the needs of the parliament and can be booked only through the parliament’s own travel agent.

The shuttle is currently being operated by Belgium’s Vizion Air. If you have never heard of them, it’s because Vizion Air is not a conventional airline, but what’s known as a “virtual airline”. Its main business is borkering charter flights; it does not have its own air operator certificate, and subcontracts the actual flying to other carriers. The ATR72 is owned and operated by a Polish airline, Sprint Air, whose titles appear on the fuselage, with a small Vizion Air sticker.

Photo courtesy of Vizion Air
Photo courtesy of Vizion Air

“The aircraft we use is a perfect fit for this mission. Load factors are usually high and if you take into account the efficiency and environmental credentials of this turboprop aircraft, you could consider it also a sort of political statement as well,” said Vizion Air’s CEO Carl Legein, touting the ATR’s relatively low fuel burn and emissions per passenger. When the train wasn’t yet available, he recalled, two or even three larger-capacity Airbus jets were deployed on this route.

The ATR usually deploys empty to Strasbourg (SXB) on Wednesdays and Thursdays, as its main job is to fly back to Brussels airport (BRU) parliament members whose schedule would not fit with that of the regular transport options (the latest commercial flight departs at 15:05 and the last regular train at 16:01.)

Those unable to secure a place on the aeroplane can take the regular flight on an Airbus A319 jet operated by Brussels Airlines, the only scheduled direct air link between SXB and BRU. This one is open to the general public, though, and runs five-weekly on weeks when there is a plenary session in Strasbourg.

As expected, prices match the direction of the traffic flows: a search for the 21-25 Oct date range reveals that the BRU to SXB leg costs €574 on Monday and Tuesday, only to drop to €39 on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The same happens in reverse Tuesday to Thursday.

Inside the ATR72 that shuttles European Parliament members, with the 2-2 seat layout customary on regional turboprop aircraft (Photo courtesy of Vizion Air)
Inside the ATR72 that shuttles European Parliament members, with the 2-2 seat layout customary on regional turboprop aircraft (Photo courtesy of Vizion Air)

But MEPs don’t just travel between Brussels and Strasbourg. They also need to travel regularly and frequently to and from their constituencies, and very often also travel on official missions to other countries. They are responsible for making their own travel arrangements through the parliament’s agency.

On workweeks, MEPs are entitled to one return journey per week between Brussels, Strasbourg (or any other official meeting venue) and their place of residence, national capital or any other point within their country of election. Additionally, they are also provided with an allowance for other travel activities, both within their country of election (48 single journeys per year) and to other countries (around €4.300 per year) .

Luckily for most, Brussels airport is pretty well connected, with direct air links to 25 out of the 27 other EU countries outside Belgium, the exceptions being Slovakia (although its capital Bratislava is a short ride away from Vienna) and next-door Luxembourg.

Strasbourg is quite another matter, though, as its rather small airport, handling just above 1.2 million passenger per year, has a limited offer of regular flights. Alternative gateways to reach the Alsatian city are Stuttgart (STR, 150km away), Frankfurt (FRA, 200km) and Basel Euroairport  (BSL, 130km).

Ryanair’s base at Karlsruhe Baden-Baden (FKB) is actually closer, just 50km away, but the number of destinations from there is limited and public transport options are patchy.

Even the longest of intra-EU flights from Brussels pales in comparison to the commute to some of the Union’s farthest-flung constituencies. No MEPs have a longer way to fly than the three representatives from France’s Overseas Territories, which send one deputy each from the territories in the Americas, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. And none have it quite as bad as Maurice Ponga of New Caledonia, who during the 2014-19 parliament was the MEP with the lengthiest journey back home — to New Caledonia, an archipelago northeast of Australia.

New Caledonia has no direct flights to Europe, while French Polynesia, the other region in the Pacific that elects European Parliament representatives, has several one-stop options to Paris. In the latter case, parliament members and staffers can travel in style on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which Air Tahiti Nui introduced recently on flights from Paris to Papeete via Los Angeles. AirCalin, which serves the New Caledonian capital Nouméa from points in Asia and Australasia, will soon receive the first of two Airbus A330-900, which will come equipped with a three-class Airspace by Airbus cabin. Still, even with those fancy new aircraft, that’s too far to make the journey every week, like most other MEPs do.

Featured image of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France by Alex Kraus/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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