Small airfields form front lines of noise wars

 - December 6, 2007, 7:19 AM

The story that tells the economic fortunes of smaller metropolitan airfields in Europe is very much a tale of several cities. Many find themselves in a veritable “Catch-22”–they can expand their operations as long as arriving and departing aircraft meet local neighborhood rules. But increased services aggravate negative public perception of the noise they generate.

City Centre Airports Association secretary-general Bjorn Rotsman told AIN that “environmental issues, both noise and emissions,” have ranked as the association’s top concerns for many years and have escalated as the industry prospers, even though aircraft have become less noisy.

“As city airport [traffic] grows, the environmental issues become more in focus and more management time is required to keep the ‘good neighbor’ profile,” he said.

Increasingly stringent engine-noise standards may have made for quieter skies, but by default they have drawn attention to other sources of noise. Advances in technology have created a two-edged sword; as powerplants become quieter, other sounds become more apparent. “Aerodynamic noise is significant,” explained Rotsman. “We have talked with aircraft manufacturers. They say they are looking at landing-gear design, at different flap [configurations].”

Other intrusive sounds, such as those from auxiliary power units (APUs), have also risen in prominence. Rotsman called APU noise “a real problem.” “Many [CCAA] members use APUs only five minutes before engine start,” he said.

Airports close to or within residential areas in particular face problems that
might not affect much larger international hubs for perhaps another half decade or more. “CCAA members, with their metropolitan location and closer neighbors, face environmental issues five to ten years earlier than the large international airports,” said Rotsman.

Accordingly, good “neighborliness”–keeping local residents happy while keeping politicians informed–remains a major preoccupation. Legislators “get angry letters, so we need to counter impressions through the use of independent surveys,” said Rotsman. “To grow and keep neighbors happy is the main challenge.”

Formed in 1992, the CCAA counts 12 members, but numbers have fluctuated over the years; at least six others have relinquished their allegiance for various reasons. Some airports have enjoyed almost nonstop growth throughout the period, while some have seen their fortunes wane–only to recover thanks to the arrival of new low-cost carriers (LCCs), possibly attracted by good deals on airport fees.

Over the past five years Croatia’s Split, Belfast City, Gothenburg City, and Stockholm-Vasteras have all enjoyed steadily growing passenger numbers–the latter two very much reflecting the arrival of Ryanair, the aggressive Irish LCC. Rotsman attributes tremendous growth at Romania’s Bucharest-Baneasa airport to the establishment there of BlueAir, the country’s first LCC, which operates 24 flights a week with two Boeing 737s.

CCAA statistics show that regional and low-cost operators serving member airports have generally enjoyed growing passenger loads since 2000. While 1995-2000 saw average loads of about 14 travelers per flight, the volume had grown to more than 19 per flight between 2001 and last year. This, despite the fact that all member airports (except Split) saw declining movements in most years between 2001 and 2003, a trend that reflected the use of larger aircraft by LCCs.

Aside from the 12 current CCAA members, six other city airports have belonged to the association during its 13-year history: Berne (Switzerland), Detroit (U.S.), Florence (Italy), Linkoping (Sweden), Rotterdam (Netherlands), Sheffield (UK) and Toronto (Canada). Of those, both Berne and Rotterdam belong to ERA, despite the association’s reluctance to forge a partnership with the CCAA. Bucharest-Baneasa, London City and Germany’s Monchengladbach (marketed as “Dusseldorf Express”) account for the current CCAA members that also belong to ERA.

Rotsman sees the future of Berlin-Tempelhof as less than certain, though he expressed bemusement at the rationale for closure. There was a decision “to close as an airport in October last year, based on the large costs of keeping intact the administrative building, which contains 5,000 offices,” he explained. “Through local opposition, the politicians reversed or delayed their decision.

“The airport is still open, but I do not know for how long. CCAA has played only a minor role in this reversal. As I think the building will be preserved for historic reasons anyway, I could not understand the closing decision.”

To Rotsman’s disappointment, all but one of CCAA’s members– Israel’s Tel Aviv-Dov Hoz–hail from Europe. “It is a pity, since environmental issues are starting to become important in North America as well,” he said, lamenting the loss of airports such as those in Detroit and Toronto.

Not that Rotsman hasn’t tried to spread the city-airport gospel around the world, despite the budgetary constraints that keep some from joining the organization. CCAA carries on an active marketing campaign, but its attempt to attract new members has coincided with tough times for the airlines and airports, said the official.

Past initiatives have included an unsuccessful try at recruiting airports for a CCAA chapter in Australia. “There are needs on all continents,” according to Rotsman. “However, any such effort needs a dedicated airport with a budget that permits management to travel to our European meetings. A municipal airport in the U.S., for example, normally does not permit travel to Europe for its employees.”