Parliament begins scrutiny of EU airport noise rules

Airport noise.JPG

European Commission plans to ease noise restriction measures around airports has been met with scepticism by the MEP in charge of the dossier in Parliament, who believes the EU executive is placing economic considerations above citizen's concerns.

The European Commission wants to end the "many inconsistencies" as to how noise restriction measures are put in place across the EU, saying they may hinder the development of extra capacity in the bloc's already crowded airports.

"Decisions on cutting noise levels have to balance protection for citizens living close to airports against the needs of those who wish to travel," the EU Executive said in December when it presented its so-called 'Better Airports' legislation package.

The package included a new EU regulation that seeks to bring more transparency in decisions over noise restriction measures, in line with guidelines developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

"Residents are entitled to be protected from excess noise from airports but it is necessary to take into account costs in terms of lost capacity and the impact on economic growth in a region," the Commission argued.

Together with more flexible airport slots and ground-handling rules, the EU executive hopes to unleash the development of Europe's airports, bringing €5 billion to the European economy and creating up to 62,000 jobs by 2025.

Easing noise restrictions around airports

The European Parliament will soon start scrutinising the draft regulation. But the MEP in charge of the dossier appears sceptical about the Commission's motives.

"I think the motivation behind this regulation is to … have fewer restrictions than there are now. I think that is the real intention of the Commission," said Jörg Leichtfried, a socialist MEP from Austria who is in charge of steering the draft noise regulation through Parliament.

According to Leichtfried, the Commission has put economic considerations above all else when drafting the regulation, an objective he does not adhere to. "Costs that are raised by noise restrictions – that shouldn't be the question," he said.

"I do not think personally [that there are too many restrictions in place]," he told EURACTIV.

Increasing the transparency of the process

The EU executive, for its part, claims it wants to bring more transparency to the decision-making process and avoid noise restrictions measures that are "inconsistent" with other objectives – such as flight safety or the environment.

"This is not about targets, but about the decision-making process," the Commission says.

One key aspect of the new regulation is that it forces decision-makers to be independent from any stakeholder. "Airports would no longer be allowed to take decisions on operating restrictions," said Helen Kearns, spokesperson on transport issues at the European Commission.

In addition, "the consultation of citizens living around airports would become mandatory" she told EURACTIV, while local residents would have to be kept "regularly informed on progress of noise mitigating measures".

At the end of the day, national authorities will still be able to place restrictions on flights if they want. According to the the EU executive, the new regulation, "gives the Commission a scrutiny role – it does not replace a member state's final decision."

Jörg Leichtfried agrees and says few MEPs are in favour of giving the Commission a power of veto over national decisions anyway. "I did not hear an argument in favour of such a right for the Commission," he said.

Phasing out the noisiest planes

On the other hand, Leichtfried says the regulation might end up banning the noisiest aircraft. "That could be an outcome that is acceptable, yes."

Indeed, airport authorities will be allowed to phase out more easily the very noisiest aircraft under the Commission's draft – and decide on a timetable following a "cost effectiveness assessment".

Leichtfried believes the intention is to ensure that eventually only the quietest engines are allowed – the so-called called 'Type 4' ones, an outcome, which he said was "acceptable".

"But the devil is in the details," he cautioned, saying a phase out with a timetable might be a good idea. According the Commission's draft, any phaseout would have to be spread over five years minimum.

Moreover, Leichtfried indicated that there seemed to be little appetite for a radical change of existing rules, which he said were "quite satisfying" overall. "A lot of colleagues" in Parliament believe there is no need for changing the existing directive, he told EURACTIV.

The European Commission presented its "Better Airports" package in December 2011, including a regulation on noise, which seeks more transparency in the process of setting noise-related restrictions at airports.

Under existing rules (Directive 2002/30), EU countries are obliged to ensure that local residents near airports are protected from excessive noise while ensuring measures do not hinder regional economic growth or air traffic development. 

But these may be hindered by local political considerations and lead to decisions which do not always reflect citizens' needs, the environment or the economy, the Commission says.

The decision-making process must follow international principles on noise management – the so-called "balanced approach" established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

  • 8 May (tbc): Parliament to hold public hearing on draft noise regulation
  • 24 May: Draft Parliament report sent to translation
  • 26 Sept.: Deadline for submitting amendments
  • 6 Nov.: Vote in the European Parliament's Transport Committee (TRAN)
  • Dec.: Scheduled vote in Parliament plenary

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