Zaventem’s Frankenstein airport provides a test case for the EU

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Wreckage of the non-fatal Kalitta Air crash at Zaventem, 2008. Does a major incident need to happen for lawmakers to take action? [John DL/Flickr]

Brussels’ Zaventem Airport has evolved into Frankenstein’s monster, processing more than 20 million passengers and millions of tonnes of cargo annually. And it’s growing, as jets fly round the clock over the rooftops of the city, write a number of concerned citizens and organisations.

This opinion-piece was co-signed by a number of citizens, groups and organisations that are listed in full below.

The issue has paralysed EU and Belgian decision makers here in the very place that should take decisive action to defend Europeans’ quality of life and health. It is a zero-sum game where no one really wins except the airport, a critical point of contention between Belgium’s Flemish north, where the airport lies, and the Walloon south. With the ethnically mixed Brussels metropolitan area caught in the middle.

It is a frightening scenario for an airport with grand visions of growth with thousands of employees. Bought by the Australian airport developer Macquarie Group and the OTPP Canadian Pension Fund in a secret deal, it has taken a city hostage, spinning itself as a virtuous job-creator in a country desperate for growth and painting critics as potential job-killers.

Amid that political paralysis, sabotage and internecine warfare, the airport is free to press ahead with unbridled expansion. German-based cargo giant DHL plans a superhub, investing more than €100 million, causing further outrage among local groups. Close over rooftops of a sleep-deprived city that, full of engaged Eurocrats, should serve as a model for a European Union that cares for its people.

Last spring, the Brussels area neighbourhoods that once quarrelled over which were getting more overflights have joined forces. Our organisations and others have called on the airport to limit the flights overall, to stop night flights robbing residents of their sleep and study how to move operations to other airports. That call has so far failed to move the national government to action, thus warranting action at EU level.

Brussels should take comfort that it is not alone, a test case for other European cities and perhaps other urban areas around the world. London, Lisbon and other European cities face a similar nightmare of Frankenstein airports brutalising nearby residents. Must we wait for a crash in Brussels, statistically only a matter of time, before there is decisive leadership?

That is why we believe the EU must act urgently, to set airport noise regulations that force airports to evolve in a humane manner or shift flights or airports elsewhere as Athens, Berlin, Munich, Oslo, Rome and Vienna already have. As airports and cities both grow, something has to give. Will it be the airports or the people?

One recent study, a “White Paper” by local software entrepreneur Jean-Noel Lebrun, which is supported by local groups, proposes a potential win-win for Zaventem’s owners. It calls for development of one of Belgium’s military airports, as already done in England, France and Germany.

Connected with a shuttle train, it would allow for more flights. Zaventem could then be downsized to what it should be: a city airport. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt had even called for Zaventem to be moved altogether. Mr. Lebrun’s idea could be a pragmatic solution.

A new “Black Book” by Mr. Lebrun adds to the urgency. It finds Zaventem to be the worst of 51 European airports studied when it comes to noise, night flights, and lack of measures taken.

Can change come in our lifetime? We believe yes, if EU and elected officials show the needed leadership, as an example of the EU making a difference for Europeans. In the meantime, there could be interim measures to relieve the suffering of Brussels residents.

Flights could be reduced by shifting them to other Belgian airports, especially cargo and low-cost, and banning night flights so Brussels – and its children – can sleep. Alarming health studies on airport noise as well as fine and ultra-fine particles at LAX, Schiphol and Zaventem further add to the urgency to stop the long-term damage to the population.

By setting stricter noise levels and flight regulations, the EU, in its very backyard, can defend a quality of life coveted by so many around the world. And serve as a test case for others by forcing airports like Brussels to adapt in order to preserve the health and well-being of millions of Europeans.

Co-signed by:

Benoit Bourtembourg – Collectief Canal

Peggy Cortois – Union Belge Contre les Nuisances des Avions

Philippe Elsen – Brussels Neighborhood Committees

Claudine Esposito – Aquilon Committee

Eric Huet – Konkel Committee

Josephine Overeem – Actie Noordrand

Charles Six – Upper Woluwe Committees

Yvan Vandenbergh – Bruxelles Air Libre

Further Reading

EU airport noise rules stir up Brussels local activists

SPECIAL REPORT / A long-standing debate in Belgium over the Zaventem national airport has been reignited by EU proposals to vet national decisions over airport noise restrictions. A local NGO told EURACTIV the proposed rules would almost trigger "war" with Flanders if implemented.