Commission proposals to ease capacity crunch at European airports include measures on noise restrictions
Thu 20 Dec 2012 – EU MEPs have approved a ‘Better Airports’ package of measures proposed by the European Commission to help increase the capacity of Europe’s airports, reduce delays and improve quality of services. Two of the three legislative measures concern slots and ground handling with the third focusing on noise-related restrictions at airports. The proposals, originally launched in December 2011, call for more transparency in the process of setting noise restrictions, including an oversight role for the Commission. Decisions on cutting noise levels should balance protection for residents living close to airports against the needs of those who wish to travel, in line with the ‘Balanced Approach’ international guidelines set at ICAO. The proposals also update existing legislation to take account of technological developments to make it easier for authorities to phase out the noisiest aircraft.
Under a current EU directive, EU states are already obliged to ensure decisions on noise-related operating restrictions carefully balance the need for noise protection for residents near an airport against the possible impact of such restrictions on air traffic. However, the Commission says there are still many inconsistencies across Europe as to how such restrictions are put in place. For example, there may be an excessive impact on the capacity of an airport due to noise restrictions, which can in turn have a knock-on effect at other airports.
Noise restrictions can also have other environmental impacts such as additional holding patterns that may be required for incoming aircraft. Restrictions can also encourage residential development near an airport, which should be kept clear in order to reduce the noise impact of airport operations, says the Commission. There is also a tendency, it adds, for noise restrictions to become ‘cast in stone’ and without review, so that new operational techniques, technological solutions or aircraft technology cannot be easily deployed.
The aim of the new proposals is to improve the procedures used to establish noise-related operating restrictions at EU airports and create a common and consistent European approach to setting restrictions, claims the Commission. It points out the objective is to improve the way that restrictions are put in place rather than to call into question the legitimate need to protect residents from excess airport noise.
The proposals would allow airport authorities to phase out more easily the very noisiest aircraft, which can account for a disproportionate amount of noise nuisance. This means reviewing the outdated definition of marginally compliant aircraft to take account of developments in technology.
As measures may reduce the available capacity at airports and also impact non-EU airlines, the aim is to ensure that noise restrictions must be justified and in a transparent manner, are evidence-driven, and follow the ‘Balanced Approach’ agreed and established at ICAO.
These proposals, maintains the Commission, should allow airports to decouple the growth in air traffic from the level of noise nuisance suffered by local residents, allowing improved noise protection at the same time as preserving growth and the economic contribution which aviation makes.
“Europe’s airports are facing a capacity crunch. If business and travelling public are to take best advantage of the air network, we have to act now,” said Siim Kallas, European Commissioner responsible for transport, when launching the proposals a year ago. “On present trends, 19 key European airports will be full to bursting by 2030. The resulting congestion could mean delays for half of all flights across the network. The status quo is not an option for airports in Europe. Faced with intense global competition, if we do not change the way we do business, we may not be doing business at all.”
Although the package was passed by the Parliament, Green MEPs voiced concerns over the noise proposals. “Regrettably the overarching focus of the legislation on airport operation is aimed at boosting airport capacity, which is ultimately at odds with citizens’ concerns on noise and its health effects, as well as being bad for the environment,” said transport spokesman for the Greens, Michael Cramer. “Despite some cosmetic changes, the proposed rules on airport noise still foresee provisions that allow the Commission to intervene to oppose operating restrictions at airports. Airports that want to introduce night-time flight bans, which are clearly in the interests of local citizens, could be challenged by the Commission. This approach is designed to favour increasing EU airport capacity and comes at the expense of good regional practice for airport noise reduction.”
The Commission will now look to reach political agreement with EU states on the noise and slot proposals in the EU Council, although the ground handling proposals will be referred back to the relevant committee for further consideration.