Noise ban provides nightmares for German airports and airlines but better sleep for campaigning residents
German airport noise protesters at a rally on March 24
Fri 20 Apr 2012 – First it was London Heathrow and now its the turn of German airports and airlines to feel the force of high profile public campaigns by local residents and activists opposed to airport expansion and aircraft noise. Thousands of protesters have regularly occupied Frankfurt Airport’s Terminal One on Monday evenings since the new fourth runway opened last October and now the German federal administrative court has ruled against night flights taking place between 11pm and 5am, and follows a similar ban imposed on Berlin’s new Brandenburg International Airport when it opens in June. This week, a night flight ban on passenger aircraft was introduced at Cologne Bonn Airport and permission for a new third runway at Munich hangs in the balance, where protests have also taken place. Airports and airlines in the country are furious but UK campaigner John Stewart believes the German rulings may have implications for other major airports in Europe.
The administrative court in Leipzig has endorsed a provisional six-hour overnight ban at Frankfurt, Germany’s largest airport hub, imposed by a lower appeals court just before the opening of the new runway. Around 17 flights are affected by the ban, but the court also ordered the state of Hesse, which has a 31% stake in the airport operator Fraport, to limit the number of flights – over 100 at present – during so-called ‘borderline times’ between 10pm and 11pm, and 5am and 6am. Such flights are to be only permissible in the case of “exceptional need”.
Late last month, a combined 20,000 protesters staged weekend demonstrations against aircraft noise in Berlin and Frankfurt, with smaller rallies in Munich, Halle, Düsseldorf and Cologne. A representative of a citizen coalition protest group said it would continue to call for a complete ban at Frankfurt between 10pm and 6am, and a cap on the number of take-offs and landings each day.
Local residents are also believed to be unhappy with flight path changes that took place to accommodate the new fourth runway that has led to some planes flying lower.
German aviation industry and business reaction to the night time ban at Frankfurt has been similar to that of their UK counterparts after the decision by their government, now supported by all political parties, not to allow a new third runway at Heathrow.
“This is a terrible blow to Germany’s reputation as a place to do business and there is no doubt that one of Europe’s largest hubs will fall behind in international competition,” commented Lufthansa Chairman and CEO Christoph Franz.
The airline, which said it would not have used the new runway for night flights anyway, called for a fair balance between economic interests and those of local residents. “A rigid night flight ban without any operational flexibility is completely unreasonable,” said Franz. “It is unique in its kind worldwide and ignores the realities of international competition.”
He intimated that major investments by Lufthansa at the airport may now be reviewed, pointing out that night flights for its freight subsidiary were a core element of the business model. Lufthansa Cargo has estimated the ban would lose it around €40 million ($53m) in earnings each year.
The airline maintains that of the top ten largest cargo airports worldwide, with Frankfurt ranked seventh, no others had an absolute ban on night flights.
“On North Atlantic routes in particular, the night-time departure is indispensable for our customers,” said Lufthansa Cargo CEO Karl Ulrich Garnadt. “Switching to other airports is impossible for us, however, as more than half the cargo on board passenger aircraft is transported via Frankfurt. Frankfurt is an indispensable part of our business model. This is the only place where freighters and passenger aircraft can be linked quickly and smoothly.
“It’s not about turning night into day. But the night cannot be allowed to become a nightmare for the German export industry.”
Lufthansa maintains it is investing billions in quieter planes and upgrading older models, thereby providing audible relief to residents around the airport, and had recently presented a noise abatement package to the state of Hesse.
Before the ban, Frankfurt-based leisure carrier Condor Airlines operated 20% of its flights at night and now fears the shorter operating hours will badly affect its business. Condor CEO Ralf Teckentrup warned that charter holiday prices could rise as a result of the ban, describing it as “a slap in the face” for airlines based at the airport.
The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) said restricting freighter movements would not only damage economic interests but would also have a negative environmental impact because of greater trucking operations if all-cargo airlines were forced to use other airports.
The Chair of TIACA’s Industry Affairs Committee, Oliver Evans, warned: “Today, night-time cargo flights are part of a seamless supply chain that means consumers and businesses can plan their stock levels and production schedules with confidence. This is now at risk.
“Until courts, businesses, industry and members of the public start to understand how much they rely on air cargo, the danger is that the decision made in Frankfurt could be repeated at other gateways. If this happens, it’s not only the air cargo that will suffer: local communities around those airports and national economies will also pay a higher price, both financially and environmentally.”
Following the introduction of a German air passenger tax, Klaus-Peter Siegloch of the German Aviation Association (BDL) said the night flight ban was “a further step that will impede the competitiveness of German airlines and airports versus their international rivals.” He claimed no such bans were in place in Amsterdam, Paris, London or Dubai.
However, John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, a group that represents residents under the Heathrow flight paths and ran a successful campaign to halt the proposed expansion of the airport, believes the German ruling has implications for night flights at other European airports and maintained both Paris CDG and Amsterdam Schiphol airports, which both operate through the night, will have been watching the outcome with interest.
He said the decision could also influence the situation at London Heathrow as the UK government is due to begin consulting later this year on plans for a new night flight regime after the current agreement with airlines runs out in 2014.
“This is a very significant ruling which could have implications for airports across Europe, including Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick,” he commented. “Critically, the German court rejected arguments by Lufthansa that its business would be damaged by a night flight ban. This is the same argument that has been made by BAA and British Airways to justify night flights at Heathrow. I suspect this ruling has brought a Heathrow night flight ban a step closer.”
The Hesse state government said it would now implement the night ban as quickly as possible and its transport minister called on airlines not to take further legal action “in order to end the discussion about night flights and contribute to pacifying the debate.”
The introduction last week of a night flight ban at Cologne Bonn Airport between midnight and 5am by the local state government affects passenger aircraft but not cargo operations. The airport and airlines are angered not only because of the distinction but also because the current night flight regulations were established in 2008 and extended to 2030.
“Making this kind of change at short notice damages business, costs jobs and prevents airports and airlines from planning with confidence for the future,” said airberlin CEO Hartmut Mehdorn. “Claiming that the level of noise caused by cargo planes is acceptable but not the noise caused by passenger planes, which are quieter, shows a naive attitude to noise control.”
Mehdorn said that the new German passenger tax had already forced the airline to reduce flights from Cologne last year because of a price-sensitive market, and the night ban would affect 48 departing and incoming flights a week this summer. “This is the wrong decision, taken at the wrong time,” he emphasised.
The Chairman of Cologne Bonn Airport, Michael Garvens, said an appeal would be made to the Federal Minister of Transport not to authorise the ban.
“The situation that led to the court order of night flight bans in Frankfurt and Berlin cannot be compared to that of Cologne Bonn. In those cases, there had been planning permission hearings concerning the new construction of an airport or a runway,” he said. “In the case of Cologne Bonn it is, on the other hand, an unlawful interference in an existing valid operating licence.”
The protests against a third runway at Munich is as much about climate change as it is over noise, claims HACAN’s Stewart, who has lent his Heathrow experience to the German campaigns.
“There is a fighting chance that the protesters against the proposed new runway could match the success of the campaigners who successfully defeated plans for a third runway at Heathrow,” he said. “If the Munich campaigners do triumph, it will reinforce the message sent out by the famous Heathrow victory that it has become increasingly difficult to build new runways or new airports anywhere in Europe.”
He described the Munich campaigners as an “impressive” coalition of climate activists, local residents, sympathetic politicians, environmental experts and academics. “Munich is also showing the way forward by bringing together climate change and noise campaigners that, until now, hasn’t happened in Germany in the way it has done in the UK,” he said, and he expected pro-active campaigning such as flashmobs, non-violent direct action, demonstrations and climate camps to take place, similar to the Heathrow action.
Stewart said the campaigners were challenging “a woefully weak” economic case for a third runway. The operator of Munich Airport, however, argues that only with the planned expansion of the existing runway system, which would increase capacity from 90 to 120 scheduled flights per hour, would it be able to achieve long-term, sustainable growth.
The airport has positioned itself as a thriving international hub to rival Frankfurt, with a wide selection of connecting flights. In 1995, the airport had just 189 destinations which by 2010 had increased to 242 destinations in 69 countries.
Lufthansa, which managed the early stages of Munich’s hub development from Frankfurt, now stations a fleet of 125 aircraft at the airport, equivalent to 50% more aircraft than are operated by carriers such as Austrian Airlines or Swiss in their home countries, claims the airport operator.
“It is obvious even now that the third runway will not be ready a day too soon because we are already struggling on a daily basis to cope with the bottlenecks inherent in our two-runway system,” the operating company’s CEO, Dr Michael Kerkloh, told journalists in February. “At peak periods, with our current traffic, we are already operating at full capacity for several hours a day, which means we have not been in a position to meet airlines’ requests for new take-off and landing slots for quite some time.”
Dr Kerkloh said that a ruling in the airport’s favour from the District Government of Upper Bavaria would automatically entail permission to begin construction immediately. “However,” he added, “we expect a legal challenge to be filed against this ruling, and therefore do not want to start until the matter is settled in court and the appropriate resolutions are passed by our shareholders.”
Stewart, on the other hand, believes Munich could become the “German Heathrow”. He said: “It is maybe at Munich where the expansion of German airports could come to a shuddering halt.”
According the European Commission, although aircraft have become 75% less noisy over the last 30 years, a large number of EU citizens are still exposed to high noise levels leading to substantial negative health effects.
“In order to ensure the sustainability of aviation, measures targeting the noise impact will remain at a number of important airports,” it said in a communication last December. “This said, noise-related measures constrain not only airport capacity at a particular airport but also the aviation system as a whole though knock-on effects. Accordingly, decisions on noise measures and the desired level of noise protection must ensure a proper balance with capacity implications overall.”
The Commission is therefore proposing changes to current rules on noise-related operating restrictions to put authorities in a better position to phase out the noisiest aircraft from airports. It will, it says, also strengthen the noise assessment process in line with the principles of the ICAO Balanced Approach on noise management so as to find the optimal combination of the most cost-effective measures for balancing transport and mobility needs with noise protection levels. The changes will also make it possible for the Commission to scrutinise the noise assessment process and, if necessary, suspend the decision on a noise-related operating restriction, prior to implementation.