Opinion: Dutch aviation and residents around Schiphol airport pons of politics – providing context to planned capacity reduction at Schiphol
Is it a political master strategy, or could much hassle and uncertainty have been avoided? Since the Dutch cabinet announced in June 2022 its ‘decision’ to reduce the number of flight movements at Schiphol from 500,000 to 440,000 per year (rather than leaving room for growth as previously stated), the discussion on capacity reduction has occupied the minds of many. In early April 2023, new developments followed one another in quick succession; on 3 April, Schiphol announced new environmental measures, some of which go (far) beyond those pursued by the government. On 5 April, a judge, in short proceedings, stopped the reduction to 460,000 flight movements planned for this year; the correct procedure had not been followed. Media report that residents around the airport “feel let down again” in a week of living “between hope and disappointment”. The emotions are understandable, but who is responsible for creating these feelings and expectations?
First, let us take a step back to consider how we got to this point. Initially, the policy change of June 2022 is substantiated based on noise nuisance and emissions. Yes, the aviation sector must also contribute to reducing CO2 emissions. Less obvious is why the nitrogen crisis is also thrown into the mix. The farmers’ uprising earlier that year is a likely explanation, even though, unlike agriculture, much is still unclear about nitrogen deposition from aviation. Having caught the sector by surprise and leaving it in limbo, it takes till the autumn for it to become clear that the government is following three ‘tracks’ to effectuate the abovementioned decision; the first two are exclusively noise-related restrictions on the number of aircraft movements to 460,000 by November 2023 and 440,000 a year later. The third track is a new system based on standards and values for limiting noise and emissions to be developed by 2027.
European and international rules prescribe a Balanced Approach (BA) to introduce noise-related operating restrictions at airports. When the Dutch government announced the BA procedure, it seemed to predetermine the outcome of the process, later adjusting this to the “expectation” to arrive at 440,000 movements. However, a BA procedure takes time and must be conducted carefully, which stands in the way of fast results. As an intermediate step, it was conceived to resort to an old system that would, translated to present times, only allow 400,000 movements. An experimental scheme is quickly devised so that 460,000 flight movements are made permissible. Since Schiphol’s total capacity for the next winter season must be declared in April, several airlines sued the government to prevent this experiment from materialising. In the ruling of 5 April, the court slaps the ministry on the wrists. The correct procedure for a capacity limitation was not followed. Local residents are disappointed. Why did the government pursue this interim step to 460,000 movements in the first place, and how feasible was the chance of success?
The plan to fall back on an old regulation from 2008 is remarkable. It does come off as very convenient for the Ministry, especially considering that, for years, it neglected to enshrine the new system legally in an updated airport decision. Even more remarkable is the assumption that falling back on an old system would not be considered a capacity reduction, or that the BA procedure that must be applied for such measure in the EU since 2014 does not apply to the old scheme. In recent years, Schiphol’s capacity declarations have conclusively set the airport’s capacity at 500,000 flight movements per year. Any limitation constitutes a factual reduction that must be taken deliberately and balanced under European and international rules.
It is striking that, of all places, in the Netherlands, an attempt is made to skip this ‘balanced approach’ – a kind of polder model, or consensus decision-making named after Dutch politics but in this case anchored in international and in European law – because it is inconvenient to the process. Where does the rush to take this intermediate step to 460,000 flight movements come from? There is already ‘anticipatory non-enforcement’ (another extraordinary creation of Dutch politics) awaiting an airport decision since 2016, and the BA procedure for next year is already in process; why stop condoning years of practice so suddenly when no alternative is available yet? Was the minimal chance of success, leading to one year of time savings, worth the commitment of all those human resources, reports, studies and legal proceedings? For local residents, it has primarily resulted in more disappointment.
Or is there another motive behind this approach, and is this ‘maximum effort’ just for show? In any case, following proper and thorough procedures seems less important than maintaining the pretence towards local residents and society that everything is being done to reduce the size of Schiphol. To then be able to argue that it is being thwarted in that ambition. That the minister is appealing on the grounds that the verdict in the short proceedings is ‘not in the interests of local residents’, while the judge should objectively weigh various interests, seems to confirm this picture. Whose interest this appeal really serves now that the minister has confirmed that those proceedings do not affect the capacity for next winter season is a mystery.
What remains now is the Balanced Approach procedure that should lead to measures from November 2024. The consultation phase started on 15 March 2023. Couldn’t this have been initiated much earlier? Preparations for the June 2022 ‘cabinet decision’ must have started months before the announcement. The Inspection’s warning letter on the resident’s legal status and the lack of legally enforceable noise regulations dates from October 2021, which is now more than 1.5 years ago.
To determine in advance that there will be a reduction to 440,000 aircraft movements without objectively formulating a noise abatement target makes this number arbitrary and contrary to the rationale of the Balanced Approach. It has been said many times, but an overall capacity reduction should only be a last resort if other measures (fleet renewal, housing insulation, land use planning, etc.), or a combination thereof, cannot achieve the pre-set noise abatement target. There appears to be more of a purpose-driven targeting to reach a capacity reduction of Schiphol per se than a focus on actual noise reduction for local residents. Considering that one of the options presented in the consultation phase does not include a capacity reduction to 440.000 movements says much about the necessity of this ultimate remedy.
Of the proposed measures for stakeholders to comment on in the consultation phase, options with a capacity restriction exclusively consider a reduction to 440,000 movements. Why are other numbers not on the table? Measures should not be more restrictive than strictly necessary. Once again, the government is digging in on a number instead of putting the problem first. After all, does reducing flight movements necessarily lead to fewer overflying aircraft at specific enforcement points? Or does it lead to less nuisance from the planes that do fly over? Instead of providing incentives to speed up fleet renewal, postponing such investments in anticipation of the measures is currently more attractive because ‘noise gain’ might otherwise not count. And what will the effect be of the planned realignment of Dutch airspace on those experiencing noise annoyance? A better layout and distribution over four instead of three approach routes and a ‘Continuous Descent Arrival’ will affect the extent to which residents experience a (severe) nuisance. Again, haste seems to stand in the way of a balanced and coherent approach with a vision for the industry’s future.
KLM and other parties indicate that they will present an alternative plan by the end of the consultation period on 15 June 2023. The ministry will have to assess this and other alternative plans (see below) and a multitude of views to come to a well-considered and well-founded decision. It may even have to (re)calculate plans to convince the European Commission. It is therefore highly doubtful whether the decision can go to Brussels before the summer. This is necessary to stay within the already very tight schedule for measures to be operational by November 2024. Not to mention the process of taking away slots from airlines in case of a capacity reduction. The Dutch Slot coordinator ACNL already hinted that late 2025 is a more realistic date for such measures to take effect. In short, there is a significant chance of delay and further disappointment for local residents. The government should be honest about that.
And then about the “hope” local residents got from Schiphol’s “choices” for a quieter, cleaner and better airport. On 3 April, Schiphol presented, among other things, a night closure, a ban on private jets and the banning of certain noisy types of aircraft. Presenting an announcement as if the decision has already been made and the outcome is predetermined is reminiscent of the June 2022 cabinet decision; No account has been taken of the expectations and feelings of hope it creates, even less with what it does to people when expectations of a long-held hope may not be fulfilled (again).
After all, how should we qualify these choices? The airport quickly acknowledged that the ‘measures’ have yet to be consulted and go through procedures. In other words, the outcome and the ability to realise the measures within two years are by no means certain. At best, it can be labelled a plan or intention. And how feasible are the plans? Earlier on the day of Schiphol’s announcement, Minister Harbers sent a letter to the Dutch parliament in which he seems to reject a ban on private flights and considers it unnecessary. A week later, the minister -rightly- issues a “warning” that a ban on business jets is not possible according to European and international rules.
The timing of the announcement is also surprising. In March, the ministry launched the consultation phase of the Balanced Approach procedure in which interested parties such as Schiphol can respond to the minister’s proposed restrictions. In a committee meeting in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, 11 April, the minister confirmed that the measures announced by Schiphol would also require a BA procedure to be followed. It is still unclear whether Schiphol will introduce its ‘plans’ in the current consultation phase or whether a separate BA procedure will be initiated. All this does is raise more questions about why and how this news was brought out.
Fortunately, the minister is going to consult with Schiphol. One would almost think that this has not happened before. Perhaps they can also discuss the effect of hurling so-called ‘decisions’ into the world, not only on issues such as the legal status and certainty of local residents but also on feelings and societal tensions. Instead of letting tempers flare further, it would be better to work together with the industry to achieve actual noise reduction as soon as possible. In this case, unilateral policy decisions only lead to more legal proceedings, more societal pressures, and more chances of delays. Unless all these plans are mainly pons on a political playing field and for the public stage anyway. Unfortunately, following a fair, transparent and balanced approach seems less important.
By Niall Buissing, Aviation Law Expert and Managing Director at Lexavia.
Opinions and thoughts expressed in this piece reflect only the author’s views.