Regional rep.: Airport noise curbs are ‘very political decisions’

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This article is part of our special report Greening aviation.

Decisions over night flights or flight routes are "very political" and have to balance between the national, regional and local levels, says Sergi Alegre Calero from the Airport Regions Conference (ARC). The European level, he says, should only interfere in cases where local populations and other stakeholders are not consulted or when their decisions are being ignored.

Sergi Alegre Calero is president of the Airport Regions Conference (ARC), an association of regional and local authorities across Europe with an international airport situated within or near their territory.

Calero is also the vice-mayor of El Prat de Llobregat in Spain, where the Barcelona International Airport is located. He was speaking to EURACTIV's editor Frédéric Simon.

What's the problem with noise around airports?

First there are more flights than ever. And the noise is concentrated in some big airports, which are usually in big metropolitan areas. Even if every case is completely different – the noise depends on the paths that planes use, the traffic control procedures, the urban planning around the airport and how many flights they have and if they have night flights.

But in general, there are more problems around big hubs, because they are the ones which get a lot of night flights, and because they are usually surrounded by a lot of people living there and because they have a lot of buildings. So this is where the noise is the most concentrated at the present moment.

How are decisions made regarding flight routes, landing, or overflight of populated areas? Do these decisions often attract controversy?

Aviation is a very regulated industry. So, there are things which are regulated in the international arena, even outside Europe. And there are things that planes can do and cannot do.

After that, there is for sure  a number of possibilities where political decisions have to be made, for example on night flights. Whether you want to have night flights or not is a highly political decision where you have to balance between the national, regional and local level.

But it must be understood, that in spite of all the negotiations that can take place, there is a moment, especially at landing, when the plane has to go for the last four or five kilometres over the same path, wherever it may be coming from. So you cannot move that, even if the prime minister wants to.

What is the situation with night flights in Europe? Do most local authorities authorise them?

It depends on the situation. For example at Barcelona airport, we don't have that problem because planes come from the sea. This is not the case for example in London. Also, night flights – usually cargo – are more expensive because the crew has to work at night.

But is it something that is creating a lot of problems in Europe?

Yes, there are thousands of citizens at the present moment affected by noise. Currently, the airports which are the most affected by noise problems are the big five: ?Schiphol, Frankfurt (you know there is a tribunal in Germany which has banned night flights in Frankfurt?), Paris, Heathrow and to a lesser extent in Madrid – these are the five largest airports in Europe.

For the rest, not so much or it is something that the local governments are dealing with. What they are asking ARC as a representative of all of them is to lobby Europe for having a comprehensive noise policy, where local authorities have their say and where it is possible to use all the tools to combat noise effects.

One of the tool is mediation. For example, in Vienna after a long process, they have come to an agreement to accept all these flights – 10, 20 flights in exchange for a compensation on some aspects. This means the cities and the regions, and the citizen's organisations, are consulted and heard.

In other places like in Frankfurt they did not manage to get an agreement and finally it was the justice which has taken a decision. So what we are asking first, is that counting with airport regions and is the standard.

In its proposed regulation, the Commission proposes to grant itself the right to cancel flight plans because of lack of transparency in the process of deciding of overflight of populated areas, etc. is this a decision that you support?

Yes and no. Yes, if the Commission really limits itself to verifying the formalities of the consultation, why not? It could allow some regional and local governments that are currently not consulted to be involved. Hence it would be an improvement.

But then the condition needs to be a much clearer definition of the role of the Commission, and of the composition and scope of the Committee.

No, if the Commission goes inside the decision itself. Then we can’t agree with this proposal. If in a region there are noise restrictions, it usually means the region, the local citizens have expressed their wish not to have night flights.

In some cases like Brussels, you get such intricacies with local political decisions, that you get decision on flight routes which don't really make sense and are not transparent in the decision-making because local populations are not all consulted.

But this is another story. Our position is that you should have forums where all the stakeholders – including the regions and the NGOs representing the citizens – should be consulted for flight restrictions, but also for flight path, creation of runways etc….

This should be the rule for Europe – you have to create these committees and you need to have a democratic debate. But if there is a decision – noise restrictions or not – Europe should not interfere.

In the case of Zaventem [home to the Brussels airport], you have one essential stakeholder – the Brussels capital population – which is largely being bypassed. Bringing more transparency to this, wouldn't that be a good thing?

Yes, but I think we are mixing two things. One is to have an effective stakeholder forum which you don't have here in Brussels and in a vast majority of other cities – in Alicante, Majorca, Paris, Rome, Athens. So you put this as an obligation for transparency.

But if this stakeholder forum is created, the decision of this stakeholder forum should not be questioned by Brussels. This is our point of view.

It's OK to have the stakeholder forum and to give the Commission a power of scrutiny to see if everybody's rights have been respected, that everyone has received the same information. But the decision should be left to the regions and owner of the airport and the airlines.

What if there is no stakeholder forum created? Or that the stakeholder forum views are being ignored?

Then we believe Europe has a right – and even an obligation – to say 'No, this decision cannot be allowed'.

And to cancel the decision?

Yes, in two cases. First, because the way to get the decision – noise restriction or no noise restriction – has not met the transparency criteria.

Second, we agree that if a member of the stakeholder forum has not been treated well, they can go to Europe and complain. Like for a decision on a third or fourth runway, the environmental assessments has to be done like this, there has to be a public consultation process, etc.

But Europe should only have the right to ban a noise restriction plan or runway plan if it has not respected the process, not the other way round. It cannot impose its own plan.

Do you have good and bad examples of airports that have adopted noise restriction measures which have not respected those transparency criteria?

It is a national legal framework, which makes it compulsory to have a forum or to have a public consultation or not. And the airports have to follow this legal framework, and most of the time they do it well. Sometimes, even when the national framework doesn't make this compulsory, there are airports and regions that have worked together to say – this is too big for the airport and for the region.

Vienna is a very good example to follow. After five years of process, 95% of the stakeholders – local governments (four or five), the airport, the regional government, the state – they agree on how to build, where to build the third runway, the expansion of the terminal, how to handle  the noise and the night flights.

And the local population has benefited?

Yes. And the result from the political point of view is that the government in charge of the city of Vienna has had a good result. It means that the people have agreed to that. 

Do you have a bad example?

There was a very poor consultation in Helsinki, it was Finavia. The new flight path was defined without any consultation. They went to court, there were endless discussions, everything was postponed for years and there was a ruling. And at the end, everybody could agree.

But how much time and how much money and worries could have been spared for everyone if the consultation process had taken place in the very first place.

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