This article is part of our special report Greening aviation.
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.
Véronique de Potter is a dedicated local campaigner. For years, she has been fighting to safeguard Brussels inhabitants from noise pollution caused by the national airport in Zaventem, a town northeast of the Belgian capital.
Those working in and around the EU institutions in Brussels are familiar with the Zaventem airport, which for many is a trusted gateway to their home countries.
But those living in the city's northern municipalities – including Schaerbeek and Evere –know all too well the noise levels created by the airport's departing flights.
Planes should fly 'where the cows graze'
To outsiders, the choice of flight routes around Zaventem may appear puzzling. Instead of avoiding the Brussels capital region and its one million inhabitants, flight routes have been designed to avoid the sparsely populated areas of Flanders where the airport – and a few Flemish voters – is situated.
For Véronique de Potter's NGO Bruxelles Air Libre, planes should ideally fly over the green fields and small towns of Flanders, north of Brussels, where they would cause fewer nuisances.
"The least populated areas are those where the cows graze," she told EURACTIV in an interview. "So it should in any case avoid the Brussels area."
However, the Flemish region sees it differently. Flanders, de Potter says, will never accept diverting flight routes from the Belgian capital over Flemish territory.
"Go talk about this to the Flemish at the north of Brussels, and you will almost get war," she said.
Convoluted national decisions
Flight routes around big airports are currently drawn up independently by each country. And those decisions are often controversial.
"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 levels," said Sergi Alegre Calero, president of the Airport Regions Conference (ARC), an association of local authorities with an international airport situated within or near their territory.
"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, the creation of runways etc," Calero told EURACTIV in an interview. "This should be the rule for Europe – you have to create these [consultation] committees and you need to have a democratic debate."
In practice, however, these broad consultations of local population and citizen groups rarely take place, leading some regional authorities to make questionable decisions on flight routes – like in Zaventem.
According to de Potter, this is largely due to the complex organisation of the Belgian state, where the regions make their own decisions on issues related to transport infrastructure although these might have an impact for the country as a whole.
"In Belgium, we have regionalised to such an extent that when the Flemish region – where the Zaventem airport is situated – consults on noise, it consults only the Flemish municipalities that are within its territory and which are located around the airport."
After numerous complaints, de Potter says the Flemish region finally accepted to extend the consultation to other municipalities. But only a handful of the 19 Brussels communes were invited whereas "the entire Brussels region is flown over," de Potter said.
EU noise restriction rules in the making
Brussels is not the only large European city where local populations suffer from opaque decision-making on flight routes around airports.
In fact, according to Calero, "the vast majority" of European cities have failed to put in place effective stakeholder forums to consult the local population, citing Alicante, Majorca, Paris, Rome and Athens.
At EU level, the European Commission has proposed bringing more transparency into how such decisions are taken.
The 'Better Airports' legislation package, tabled in December, included new EU rules under which the consultation of citizens living around airports would become mandatory, a Commission spokesperson said.
In other words, the EU executive would have a right to cancel a decision on flight routes or a new runway if local populations are not properly consulted.
In Belgium and elsewhere, the implications could be far-reaching.
Jörg Leichtfried, an Austrian MEP (Socialists & Democrats) who is in charge of steering the proposal through the European Parliament, said flight routes around Zaventem may have to be redrawn as a result. But he also said there was little enthusiasm among his colleagues for changing the existing rules, which he said were "quite satisfying" overall.
For Sergi Alegre Calero, the Commission is right to seek more transparency in the decision-making process and should be able to cancel a decision if local populations and stakeholders are not consulted.
"We believe Europe has a right – and even an obligation – to say 'No, this decision cannot be allowed'," Calero said. "But if this stakeholder forum is created, the decision of this stakeholder forum should not be questioned by Brussels," he cautioned.
The Commission, he explained, should limit itself "to verifying that the formalities of the consultation" are respected, including on the "composition and scope of the [consultation] Committee".
The Vienna airport, Calero indicated, is a good example to follow. After a five-year consultation process, almost all stakeholders had the opportunity to make their views heard – including the airport, the central government, and the regional authorities. The end result was an agreement to build a third runway, expand the terminal, and measures to handle noise and night flights.
By contrast, Calero said the consultation in Helsinki with Finavia, which maintains a network of 25 airports in Finland, was "very poor".
"The new flight path was defined without any consultation. They went to court, there were endless discussions, and everything was postponed for years."
The decision was eventually brought before a Finnish court, which settled the issue. "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," Calero lamented.
Right of scrutiny
At European level, EU member states have shown reluctance to give the European Commission the authority to cancel noise restriction decisions around airports when those fail to take the views of local populations into consideration.
Meeting on 7 June, the EU's 27 transport ministers agreed a general approach on the Commission's proposed regulation, limiting the EU executive's powers to a simple right of scrutiny.
"The Commission will have the right to review the process that the competent authority followed for introducing the [noise] restriction," the Council of ministers said in a statement.
The ministers also decided to gradually phase out the noisiest aircraft, aiming to give airlines an incentive to "replace them with less noisy aircraft since they could otherwise no longer fly to the airport concerned."
National transport ministers did make some concessions however. "If the Commission considers that the process does not comply with the requirements of the regulation, it will send a notification to the authority, which must take due account of the Commission's observations," the Council statement added.
But "the member states will have the last word," a source in the EU Council of Ministers confirmed, adding that "there was an overwhelming majority" to reject the Commission's bid to invalidate noise-related decisions.
Brussels noise problems here to stay
In practice, this means Brussels inhabitants are likely to continue hearing planes departing and landing at Zaventem for the foreseeable future.
For Véronique de Potter, the only viable long-term solution would be to abandon Zaventem as a national airport and downscale it to handle smaller operations. The airport, she recalls, was built during Nazi occupation in the Second World War and the location chosen at the time was "the worst possible" because of the unfavourable wind directions.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt had proposed building a new national airport near Lille at the French border, she recounts. But the Flemish region rejected the idea because it was "absolutely determined" to keep the national airport on its own territory.
"Although Zaventem was built with federal funds in the origin, it's still their airport," she said.