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How can we know when options are exhausted amid the noise over Schiphol?

On June 24th2022 the Dutch government announced that flights from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport will be limited to 440,000 a year, 11% fewer flights than in 2019, to become effective in November 2023 with a stated objective to cut noise pollution, drawing praise from green groups but dismay from airlines bosses. The government move is intended to restore "the balance between a well-operating international airport, the business climate, and the interests of a better and healthier living environment", said Transportation Minister Mark Harbers in a statement announcing the decision.


Aircraft noise is increasingly of concern for communities living near airports or under flight paths, despite the noise performance improvements of modern aircraft. In order to address the effects of aircraft nose and reflecting the Balanced Approach to the Management of Aircraft Noise published by ICAO in 2001, the European Union implemented a series of regulations including EU598 legislation aimed at reducing aircraft noise and any adverse impact on local residents, and setting out the processes to be followed when considering restrictions to flying for noise reasons.


The Dutch announcement provoked a legal challenge by KLM, Delta Air Lines, Corendon Airlines, easyJet and TUI, which argued that they can reduce noise levels and CO2 emissions while maintaining their passenger and cargo networks, having invested billions in the latest fuel efficient and quietest aircraft. They also highlighted Schiphol's contribution to the wider Dutch economy.


At the beginning of April 2023, a Dutch court hearing the airline’s case blocked the 2022 decision by the country's government to cut the current limit of 500,000 flights per year. However, this is far from the end of the story.


“The authorities had not followed correct procedure in enacting the decision”, the court in Amsterdam decided, scuppering for the time being one of Europe's most high-profile government actions to reduce capacity on environmental grounds.


The court decision, noting the need in regulation to exhaust all other noise mitigation methods and use of associated processes, before resorting to restrictions on flying. This being one of the key principles of EU598 legislation and its genesis in the ICAO Balanced Approach. (Image ICAO) Significantly, this means that aircraft operators, airports, air navigation service providers and the local planning authorities - not just the aircraft operators – ought to be engaged in exploring all possible options for reducing noise and its impacts, including the evaluation of any potential economic and health factors, and to consult stakeholders using a process described in the EU598 regulations. Only then, can governments or airports reasonably resort to the restriction of flights for noise reasons. The legislative approach is designed to balance the needs of aircraft operators and other aviation and economic stakeholders with the interests of local communities. While restrictions on flying may be necessary in some cases, the aim is to minimize their use through the adoption of effective noise abatement procedures, the use of quieter aircraft and other noise measures such as restricting the construction of new homes in areas likely to be adversely affected by aircraft noise and insulating those homes already constructed or planned.

As noted by the airlines that brought the Schiphol case to the courts, by working together, the aviation industry and local communities can find ways to manage aircraft noise and ensure that everyone can benefit from safe and sustainable air travel.


"Winning this vital reprieve is good news for Schiphol's passengers, Dutch businesses, the Dutch economy and airlines," writes IATA director general Willie Walsh. "But the job is not done. The threat of flight cuts at Schiphol remains very real and is still the stated policy of the government."


Although the ruling represents a near term victory for airlines, the Dutch government is currently consulting on a move to restrict flights to 440,000 on a permanent basis from 2024 onwards. In a sign that Schiphol recognises the prospect of punitive measures are inevitable at some point, the airport has separately said it plans to ban on private jets and further restrict take-off and landing times in order to bring about a "quieter, cleaner and better aviation". It also intends to abandon its Kaagbaan second runway and prohibit the noisiest aircraft. Observers may note that moving aircraft to other airports, a consequence of banning them at Schiphol, simply relocates rather than reduces noise.


Net Zero link


The mechanisms used to improve noise performance and to lessen the impact of noise are often linked to use of more efficient flight profiles. For instance, the continuous climb and descent trajectories, sought by the Single European Sky and requiring airspace modernisation, are intended to reduce both noise and emissions, the drive to net-zero will also reduce the levels of aircraft noise reaching the ground.


The prospect of government initiatives to restrict flying elsewhere in Europe and beyond cannot be ruled out, yet the Aviation Industry’s ability to control and influence aircraft noise impact has limits.


The UK Aviation Industry body Sustainable Aviation has produced this infographic that indicates the magnitude of the challenge faced by the industry at large.

Equally, experience elsewhere has tended to indicate that, there is room for improvement even at the most environmentally responsible of organisations.

Lessons learned by aircraft and airport operators, ANSPs, Regulators and local planning authorities can inform others facing similar challenges. As observed by KLM in response to the Dutch court ruling "We would rather co-operate with the other parties than face them in court."


In almost every case, and even at Schiphol, traditionally a leading proponent of good governance in noise management, more can and should be done to reduce noise impacts. Something that is more likely to be achieved through collaboration and transparency with aviation stakeholders, regulators and local planning authorities.


The challenge now for the Dutch government, for Schiphol and all involved in using and serving the airport, is how to determine fairly that all other noise impact measures have been exhausted, thereby justifying the introduction of restrictions to flying? How does the airline, airport, ANSP or planning authority demonstrate that further measures can still be taken and with what impact? The Airspace modernisation element is a good example, this inevitably long-term measure – which requires regulatory and policy support from government - will yield real benefits to both noise and emissions. Determining that all other measures have been exhausted is a complex requirement, it ought to be independently evidenced and verified. On what reasonable basis does a consultation call time on new measures and opt for restrictions? Whether they like it or not, the aviation industry using Schiphol and elsewhere still faces these questions and should seek compelling and evidenced answers from governments and others involved.


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