A EUROPEAN UNION guarantee seems to be a bit like Sam Goldwyn's famed verbal contract - not worth the paper it's written on. Certainly, that seems to be the case with the guarantees that the EU gave operators of Chapter 2 aircraft in 1992 that they could continue to operate those aircraft into EU airports until 2002. Now, it seems, what it meant was they would have guaranteed access, but only to those from which they have not been banned.

This latest twist comes from Berlin, whose airport authorities have just been given dispensation by EU transport ministers to ban Chapter 2 aircraft from their two inner-city airports (Tegel and Tempelhof) as long as they still allow them into the out-of-town Schonefeld/ Brandenburg. According to the EUtransport commission, such arrangements are OK if made within an "airport system" such as that made up of Berlin's three airports.

On that basis, presumably, all of London's designated airports - Heathrow, Gatwick , City, Stansted, Biggin Hill and Luton - could get together with the EU's blessing and agree to ban Chapter 2 aircraft from all but one of their number. If they were being really bloody-minded about it, they could agree that the one remaining Chapter 2 airport could be one like Biggin Hill (without all the necessary equipment) or one like Heathrow (so slot-limited that the airlines using Chapter 2 aircraft would never get access).

The same ploy could be used in dozens of Europe's large conurbations which have more than one airport each, with airlines using older aircraft being shunted out of valuable hard-won slots on the pretext of noise regulations. Thus, great swathes of European airspace could, effectively, be cut off to those operators. Is that what those who wrote those rules originally intended?

None of the foregoing is an argument in favour of retaining Chapter 2 aircraft in service for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary or justified - but nor is every Chapter 2 aircraft necessarily a thundering anti-social monster. Within each noise category, aircraft of differing weights can make different levels of noise, so a light Chapter 2 aircraft can be significantly quieter in absolute terms than a heavy Stage 3 one.

Inevitably, most Chapter 2 aircraft will be retired, or hushkitted in the next few years anyway - according to Airbus Industrie, 95% of all the airliners in service 33 years ago have been retired, and 86% of those in service today will be retired within 20 years. The planning for that process already takes into account the international agreements on the retirement of specific classes of aircraft, such as the Chapter 2 heavy airliners from certain parts of the world by certain dates. It ill behoves those who made those deals now to attempt to unravel or circumvent them through what will be regarded by those who have made their fleet plans in the light of those agreements as being little short of chicanery.

The whole point of having an international economic grouping like the EU is that it can establish common rules of trade and commerce, which, in turn, remove barriers to free movement and access, getting rid of restrictive local or nationalistic practices. The EU should be working against such practices, not encouraging them, or (as in the case of the UK Government's ill-judged and probably illegal new absolute noise limits set for Heathrow and Gatwick at the beginning of the year and now rightly being challenged) turning a blind eye to them.

If the EU transport ministers (and the transport commissioner) now feel that they were wrong to give their 1992 guarantee, then they should openly address the problem with the airlines and communities affected by it, not try and overturn it by stealth. Their actions so far smack more of local-election convenience than a genuine worry about a noise which will disappear in five years' time anyway, and they should have to fight for the electoral advantage as hard as airlines have to fight to survive.

If this is , however, how the EU wishes to conduct its relations with the poorer nations of the world (from where most of the affected airliners will probably come), then those nations might well want to consider Sam Goldwyn's other great quotation when the Europeans want something (like valuable landing rights in other parts of the world) in return -"Include me out".

Source: Flight International