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vrijdag 13 januari 2006 23:30
DHL Worldwide Express’ decision to relocate its European hub from Brussels to Leipzig-Halle as from 2008, was the first direct consequence of a noise debate peppered with environmental concern, ethnic rivalry and decades of chaotic town and country planning.

Contrary to other airports in Europe, the nimby syndrome is indeed only one ingredient of the Brussels noise debate cocktail. Going back a bit, the airport’s location at Zaventem, to the east of Brussels, was not a very good choice. As aircraft tend to go up the wind when landing and taking off and west is the prevailing wind-direction in Belgium, the aircraft usually take up over Brussels. The Belgian capital itself lies in one of Europe’s most densely populated areas.

When the airport was opened, in 1958, all this was not too much of an issue, especially with only 53.517 movements (in 1960). Moreover, in those days Belgium was still a unitary state of which Brussels was the capital and Zaventem a modest farming village on the edge of the latter’s suburbia.

By 2004, the number of movements had risen to 252.068, of which 23.108 during the night (i.e. 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.). In today’s Belgium the federal state has been stripped of most of its executive powers, which have been devolved to the local governments of Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and the bilingual region of the Brussels capital (as well as to the German-speaking minority in the east of the country). Even within this Byzantine political system both the airport –which geographically speaking is located on Flemish territory- and air traffic management have remained under the authority of the federal government. Environmental policy, including noise pollution regulation, has been handed over to the respective regional authorities.

Ethnic dimension

Back in January 2000 federal Mobility Minister Isabelle Durant, a member of the French-speaking environmentalist party Ecolo, proposed to gradually ban all night flights at the airport between 1 and 5 p.m. by 2003. The fact that the Brussels region was Ms Durant’s constituency gave the issue its ethnic dimension from the very beginning. Both the Flemish liberals and social-democrats, who together with the green parties formed the same purple monster coalition, expressed their concerns over possible job losses at DHL. In 2002 the federal, the Flemish and Brussels reached an ‘intergovernmental agreement on the so-called ‘concentration model’, which stipulated that all the flights were to land or take-off exclusively over the ‘Noordrand’, the northern rim bordering the Brussels conglomerate (but entirely under the jurisdiction of the Flemish government).

Huge protests by pressure groups forced the government(s) into a new compromise, starting from the idea of some kind of flight dispersion, in which Brussels has to bear part of the burden as well. After the 2003 national elections, the Mobility department was given to Bert Anciaux, despite his surname a member of the progressive Flemish nationalist party Spirit. Anciaux, himself an inhabitant of the Noordrand, which also makes up his constituency, ordered a full-scale dispersion plan. This time its Brussels and the Oostrand, the eastern rim which has al large well-to-do French-speaking population, raise their voices.

2004. In comes DHL, presenting a major expansion plan at Brussels Airport, including substantial job growth. The plan is enthusiastically hailed by the Flemish government, but rejected by Brussels. In line with its expansion plans, DHL asked for an increase of its MD-11 operations, contrary to about every existing government scheme all of which provided in a decrease of the night operations. The federal government was only willing to consider an increase of long-range night operations if DHL committed to substituting the MD-11’s by another aircraft type,  s.a. the B-777-freighter (the programme of which had not yet been launched at the time). After several days of endless discussion, DHL decided to throw the sponge and to go for the Leipzig scenario. For Brussels Airports this will mean the loss of some 1,200 jobs as from 2008.

Different noise regulations 

Night ban is however only one part of the problem. Surrealistic as it may seem now that Europe is paving the way for a united airspace and a further harmonisation of aviation policy, Flanders and Brussels have totally different noise regulations. In Brussels, whose Environment minister Evelyne Huytebroeck is another Ecolo-member, these are so rigid, that practically all major carriers have been fined for violating them over the last few years. “They are costing us lots of trouble and uncertainty”, says Evangelo Kommatas, Public Relations Manager of Airline cargo managers association Belgium, ACMAB VZW. The members of this association flying with the wide body type aircrafts are contesting the huge fines received from the BIM, The Brussels region Environmental institute, before the Administrative High Court. The main argument used,  “we are flying under the constraint of Belgocontrol.

(Belgium’s ATC authority, still a federal agency). It’s they who decide which route we are to take”. Additionally most Freighter carriers have adapted their schedules to comply with the statutory regulations.” “The airlines are constantly investing in quiet aircrafts and urge the Federal and Regional governments to find a unified solution. It is a real joke that so many

jobs are at stake and that the future of the airport is a bargain tool in the political game of this otherwise fantastic country.”
 

In October 2005 a new round of negotiations between the federal government and both regional authorities involved, resulted in a stalemate.  Rumours will have it that no agreement will be reached before 2008. “That is much too late for us”, says Mr Kommatas. “If a solution is not reached much sooner, just like DHL, various airlines will have no option but to relocate their services to another International airport. Neither Liège nor Ostend are on the short-list for that matter.” “This relocation would be an unacceptable cost for the airlines and for entire airfreight industry adding more then 9000 lost jobs to the 1200 from DHL in 2008.”
 

Macquarie-owned Brussels International Airport Company, takes a very cautious stand in the debate, says Alain Bertrand, cargo manager. “What we learn from the airlines is that they are getting tired of all this. They are desperately hoping for a clear operational framework in the middle and long run.”

Build as you please

In the mean time, the development of new housing projects in the near vicinity of the airport goes on. Land and country planning have always been alien to the Belgian character and in a country where voting is compulsory and local burgomasters run for national elections, every new resident is a vote to be reckoned with. Transport Economist Eddy Van de Voorde of the Antwerp University, himself a native of the airport area, also suspects a well-thought strategy form the actual builders. “Building sites next to an airport tend to be cheaper than in other areas, so you may end up far cheaper for the same type of house than in more remote areas. If you then join a pressure group to demand that the long-existing airport be downsized, the price of your property may go up substantially.”

For the time being, patience and confidence seem to prevail at Brussels Airport. In the midst of the debate, Ethiopian Airlines moved its (cargo) operations from Ostend to Brussels, claiming that the latter had more transit freight and connectivity to offer. Autumn saw the advent of Etihad Airlines, a passenger operation, allying itself with home carrier SN Brussels Airlines. The latest cargo figures for the airport suggest a record of 700,000 tonnes of cargo (excluding trucking).

Laatst aangepast op donderdag 01 mei 2008 20:39