Operators claim deal on aircraft noise will clip industry’s wings

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Series Details Vol.7, No.21, 24.5.01, p15
Publication Date 24/05/2001
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Date: 24/05/01

A bilateral accord between Berlin and Zurich aimed at limiting aircraft noise may set a dangerous precedent, aviation businesses fear. Laurence Frost reports.

AS POLITICAL uncertainty continues to cloud hopes for a liberalised European aviation sector, industry leaders are increasingly nervous that the sky might be falling in. Or rather, apart.

Details are yet to be confirmed of the deal struck between Germany and Switzerland to set landing restrictions at Zurich airport on noise grounds - an agreement with the potential to hit the profits of players outside the two countries.

And with the ink barely dry on an EU-Swiss accord intended to give Berne Union-member status in air-traffic terms, airports and airlines alike see a "dangerous precedent" in the agreement, concluded only after Germany threatened unilateral restrictions of its airspace for Zurich-bound flights.

Airport operators complain of a fragmentation of Europe's aviation rules, as locally-applied noise restrictions prevail. "It seems to be becoming more and more common," says John Hume of Airports Council International. Of his organisation's 300 member airports, fewer than 20 suffer acute environmental noise problems. "There shouldn't be knee-jerk reactions to environmental or community groups," he warns.

Hume cites the example of the ban on night flights at Brussels airport announced last year by Belgian Transport Minister Isabelle Durant. Her decree was overturned at the last minute by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt after international courier company DHL threatened to close its Zaventem operation, with a cut of 6,500 jobs. "Before a restriction can go ahead there needs to be full social and economic analysis of its effects," Hume underlines.

Airlines too are smarting, exasperated by the further delays to Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio's 'single sky' plan for an EU air-traffic management system - now stalled by Britain and Spain's dispute over Gibraltar's runway.

And rumours are circulating of an imminent deal on the EU-US dispute over hushkits, or engine mufflers, with European Commission officials acknowledging privately that the Union will have to accept a variation of Washington's 'balanced approach', treating airports on a case-by-case basis.

This will allow further disparities to open up on the noise restrictions in place at different airports. And in the absence of an EU-wide policy, the gaps are already widening, with several countries and regions forging ahead with their own local restrictions.

Although the package of EU-Swiss agreements is not yet ratified - Germany is one of the countries that have yet to do so - airlines are watching the Zurich situation warily, and wondering if the rash could spread.

"It's a disturbing development," says Tim Goodyear of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). "It could lead to local fragmentation in Europe's airspace - which is already very fragmented and heavily congested."

Goodyear believes there is little reason to suppose that Union states would be immune to this kind of action, citing Gibraltar as an example. "If local political pressure is heavy enough or prolonged enough, the possibility of it happening exists anywhere," he adds.

When Germany threatened earlier this year to restrict Switzerland's access to its airspace, IATA fronted the airlines' campaign. In a letter to German Transport Minister Kurt Bodewig and Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger, Director-General Pierre Jeanniot said the German move had been "introduced at a time of serious challenge for the air transportation industry".

He warned the restrictions on airport movements - takeoffs and landings - would have "drastic consequences on air transportation throughout this part of Europe", as well as "setting a dangerous precedent for similar unilateral action by other countries".

But the situation changed when Switzerland and Germany reached a deal last month agreeing to cut annual takeoffs and landings over German airspace by a third, and extending the current weekend ban on night-time movements by 15 hours a week. Once drafting is complete, the framework accord is due to be ratified by the Swiss parliament in the autumn.

"This sort of thing shouldn't just be decided on the basis of a large country and a small country doing a bilateral deal," says Goodyear. "It's not just Germany and Switzerland that are affected - it's other countries too, and other carriers."

Other carriers agree. "If this means there will be less slots in Zurich, we might have to reduce the number of flights," says Hans Ollongren, director of pubic affairs

at SAS. Seven of around 1,000 daily SAS flights - generating €5.4-billion annual turnover - operate to and from Zurich. "This could affect everybody - British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa," he adds.

Ollongren says airlines are at a loss to explain Switzerland's willingness to give way to the German threats, attributed by some European Commission officials to a desire by the ruling SPD party in Berlin to boost its ill-fated election campaign last March in the southern border region of Baden-Würtemburg.

No one is more mystified about Berne's capitulation than its own national carrier. The restrictions could not come at a worse time for Swissair or its parent SAir Group, whose shares fell to a six-year low early last month after the group posted €1.92 billion in losses for 2000. The airline itself - which accounted for only €115 million of those losses - is now considering its legal options as it waits for clarification of the bilateral agreement.

"They could have gone to the legal bureau of [the International Civil Aviation Organisation] ICAO for an opinion," says Regula Dettling, a lawyer for Swissair.

She said the Berne government had "almost psychological problems" with the notion of taking legal action against a neighbouring country - despite the fact that Germany's threat to deny access to its airspace breached international aviation's 'first freedom', introduced alongside the Chicago Convention in 1944.

Much will now depend on the final form of the agreement, which has still not been published. But officials at Switzerland's Federal Office for Civil Aviation confirm that the deal will include a weekend curfew, banning incoming flights from 8pm to 9am, three nights a week.

"Under certain meteorological or operational conditions [the curfew] will permit no landings at all," says Dettling. "If this is what emerges Swissair must take any legal options open to it."

Dettling believes the eventual ratification of the EU-Swiss accords could provide the opportunity for a legal challenge: "Once we have the bilateral agreement, Switzerland is like any other EU member state as regards air traffic."

Back in Brussels, the official responsible for airport noise restrictions maintains that the Commission is not taking a formal interest in the case. And Swiss government sources insist the bilateral deal will not breach the new accord with the EU, since it will not force slot closures.

"There's no real restriction in capacity in the long term," says one official in Berne. "In the short term there is, because they have to change the runway approaches. That's why there will be transition periods."

But the skies are already darkening over Hans Ollengren. Whether or not the particularities of the Zurich deal end up forcing a cut in flights, he believes national airport regulators and protest groups elsewhere in Europe might "take inspiration" from Germany's stance.

"It could have a sort of contamination effect," he says. "People in other countries may look at this accord and say, 'If it's possible to have restrictions like that, we want some!'"

A bilateral accord between Germany and Switzerland aimed at limiting aircraft noise may set a dangerous precedent, aviation businesses fear.

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