ERA launches campaign to counter EC ‘favoritism’

 - October 9, 2007, 5:54 AM

The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) has demanded a “balanced approach” to environmental controls in the European Union transport industry following the publication of its new study on the noise performance of the continent’s regional airline fleet. The “Growing Quieter” report concluded that the noise generated by the average regional aircraft is about half what it was in the early 1970s. And  by 2010, the report notes, the average noise level is likely to be less than two-thirds of today’s levels and around 40 percent below the International Civil Aviation Organization’s expected Stage 4 limits.

ERA has accused European Commission (EC) transport and environmental regulators of discriminating in favor of road and rail links, while continuing to treat aviation as a pariah mode of transport by preparing new fiscal penalties for flying. The group also resents EC subsidies that it maintains exceed E13 billion ($11.8 billion) for Europe’s high-speed rail network, amounting to a full 38 percent of the rail system’s total income. The new rail network is being built at a cost of approximately E3.25 billion ($2.96 billion) per 150 km (93 mi), which, according to ERA, is equivalent to just over three-quarters of the annual operating budget for Eurocontrol.

“The EC in its white paper on transport policy proposes restricting the growth of air transport,” complained ERA director general Mike Ambrose at a May 8 press conference at London City Airport. “This study shows that regional aviation is environmentally sustainable and can continue to meet the business and social needs of the public for air travel.”

In fact, the EC white paper lays down general principles for transport policy in 2010 and beyond, and does not set specific target dates for the environmental charges. It is anticipated that the EC could resort to measures such as obliging EU member states to levy sales tax on fuel for commercial aircraft operators. This fuel is currently exempt from such taxes.

Ambrose alleged that despite its apparent generalities, the white paper’s not so secret agenda is to justify state subsidies for high-speed rail links, which compete directly with regional airlines. Next month ERA plans to publish another paper detailing its argument that rail is being unfairly supported at the expense of air travel.

The noise study used the certified noise levels of all aircraft types in the ERA fleet (including variants and engines) to ascertain how on average it had measured up to the Stage 3 noise limits that were introduced between 1977 and 1984. The fleet was assessed as of 1996, 2000 and last year, with more than 3,400 “aircraft noise characteristics” considered.

As of Dec. 1, 1996, just 9.4 percent of the fleet did not meet Stage 3 limits and by Dec. 1, 2000, this proportion had fallen to just 4.1 percent. By December 1, last year, not only had all ERA aircraft met the Stage 3 requirements, but 86.7 percent of them already met Stage 4 limits, which will take effect in 2006. Stage 4 limits have a cumulative margin of 10 dB less than Stage 3.

The study also projected the future noise profile of ERA aircraft based on current fleet-replacement plans. It found that by 2006 the average aircraft will be between 22- and 24 dB quieter than Stage 4 limits. By 2010 this margin will likely widen to between 24- and 26 dB. With all remaining Stage 2 aircraft having been withdrawn to meet the ICAO-backed April deadline, a full 94.6 percent of ERA aircraft already meet Stage 4 standards.

Barry Perrott, the former chief executive of British European Airways, prepared the ERA report. Perrott explained that European regional airlines’ aggressive program of fleet renewal is continuing to improve the sector’s noise profile. The study found that not only are jets becoming more numerous in the fleet than turboprops, but that they are generally getting smaller, younger and quieter.

In 2000 the average seat capacity of ERA-member jet equipment was 71, compared with 105 in 1996. Over the same period the average jet age fell from 10.8 to 7.8 years, and the average cumulative noise margin against Stage 3 limits was extended from 9.2 dB to 16.9 dB.

By contrast, the diminishing number of turboprop aircraft in the ERA fleet has not changed its noise profile much (still around a 21-dB cumulative margin on Stage 3). The turboprops have also remained similar in size (at average seat capacity of 42) and have become slightly older at 10.4 years on average. More than half of all ERA-member aircraft have now been built within the past seven or eight years.

Ambrose maintained that the air transport industry’s progress on noise had all been achieved as a result of the huge investment required over the past two decades to meet Stage 3 limits. He argued that far more future progress would be achieved by focusing on the new Stage 4 goals than by introducing new noise charges.

“Our members need to have a real incentive to invest in ever more environmentally friendly aircraft,” he said. “If an operator is to spend $15 million on a new aircraft, it needs to know that it will get a good 14 or 15 years use out of it, not a new set of penalties.” Perrott added that the EC’s envisioned new “incentive charges” (as noise penalties are called in the Commission’s vernacular) will effectively mean that regulators are telling operators “not to bother getting quieter.”

Ambrose said manufacturers of new-generation regional jets, such as Embraer, are leading the way in industry initiatives to ensure further environmental progress. However, he also expressed regret that the U.S. government, under pressure from its manufacturers, had last year squashed the EC initiative to exclude so-called marginally Stage 3-compliant hush-kitted aircraft, characterizing this as a reactionary move that undermined the industry’s credibility on the environment.