ICAO sets noise standards for aircraft, but it is communities that really hold the reins by preventing airport expansion

Airports should be great businesses. They face inexorably growing demand, are not dogged by competitors in the way that other businesses are, and operate in a controlled environment. They sound like the perfect safe haven for investment fund managers.

But things are not that simple for airport operators in mature democracies - especially crowded ones like the European states - which want to expand their businesses to meet travel demand. Even in the USA, with apparently plenty of real estate available for expansion, airport managers hoping to develop their businesses face two powerful obstacles: the environmental lobby and the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome. Everybody wants an airport conveniently located nearby, but not too near, and wants more runway capacity if that is what it takes to reduce delays, but wants it built somewhere else.

The NIMBY syndrome was recognised long ago by an aviation industry trying to keep a sense of humour in the face of the realities of operating in (and for) a society that wants things both ways. But the NIMBY's anatomy, according to weary industry watchers, consists of eleven sub-components, each with its own acronym. These range from the politically motivated NIMEY (not in my election year) through the legal tactician's NUID (negotiate until it dies), to the civic/environmentalist's ultimate BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).

But a reversal of the accepted meaning of NIMBY - that nothing should be built near an airport - ought to be a weapon in the airport manager's portfolio, according to a liberal interpretation of the International Civil Aviation Organisation's October 2001 ruling on measures to control the impact of aircraft noise on communities. ICAO's plan for "land use management" is one of the central tenets in the set of principles officially called "the balanced approach to aircraft noise reduction" (BAANR). These principles were drawn up ostensibly to balance environmental measures and noise sanctions intended to benefit communities near airports against the airlines' ability to continue providing profitable air services.

Building development

LUM entails either banning or closely controlling domestic and industrial building development close to airports, with a view to protecting from noise and pollution those who would live or work there, and also reducing potential danger in the event of aircraft emergencies.

Land use management, however, is a concept that has arrived years too late to make any difference at most of the big airports serving major cities worldwide. Suburbs have already grown out to surround the airports, or to join up with the virtual towns that developed to supply the airports with employees and services.

It is this sort of situation that leads Airports Council International-Europe's policy director John Hume to describe the BAANR as providing "extremely poor" results both in Europe and the USA, and being both a placebo and a "lawyers' paradise". Airline organisations such as the US Air Transport Association (ATA), however, love it because it is aimed at sounding environmentally sensitive while protecting the commercial interests of the airlines.

Since airports and airlines are mutually dependent, at first glance it seems strange that they should have opposing views over the issue of aircraft noise. Hume says that the ACI International as a worldwide organisation "is at one" in its belief that the BAANR "is not the way forward". But then airports are the organisations that interface directly with the local and national politicians and the environmental pressure groups, and whose businesses are directly prevented from expanding unless they can offer credible improvements for the near future. The airlines do not feel the pressure at source - it hits them eventually in the form of slot restrictions resulting from the community pressure that prevents runway building.

Reduction of noise at source - meaning building or modifying aircraft to be quieter - is the primary tenet of the BAANR. Chapter 3 aircraft conform with the minimum permissible standard in those countries that wish to enforce the ICAO limits, but it only became legal to ban the noisier Chapter 2 aircraft at the beginning of this year and there has been no date yet agreed for Chapter 3 aircraft to be phased out.

The ICAO advice is that this should be a natural process, and not normally before an aircraft has served 25 years from the date it received its individual certificate of airworthiness.

Since the standard for Chapter 4 will apply only to new-build aircraft that come off the production line after January 2006, unless this rule is modified Chapter 3 aircraft may continue to be built until 31 December 2005 and the last may not be banned until 2031.

The final BAANR measure that must be applied before the imposition of more stringent local limits may be considered is the modification of operational measures, commonly known as noise abatement procedures. Like LUM, this is ineffective in the sense that most measures that can be applied at major airports have been. Now increasing in popularity with local politicians, however, are requirements to direct aircraft to runways that are chosen because they have lower numbers of people living on the approach rather than because they have the most suitable approach aids or are the safest given the wind direction at the time. This has generated much opposition from pilot unions.

In the face of US pressure, successfully applied this year via ICAO, the European Union conceded it had lost the "hushkit war". This battle had raged since 1997 over an EU proposal to ban the hushkitting of EU-registered Chapter 2 aircraft or the import on to the European register of aircraft hushkitted to meet Chapter 3 standards, on the grounds that they met them only marginally and produced more pollution. The legislation would have come into effect on 1 April, but since its capitulation the EU has accepted the BAANR.

Re-interpreting the rules

Having climbed down, however, the EU is already looking to re-interpret the BAANR rules, especially those defining what constitutes a Chapter 3 aircraft. One proposal, for example, is to set Chapter 3 as a minimum standard for aircraft certification, not a right to fly into an airport in a community that wants to reduce noise nuisance beyond the minimum standards as interpreted in the BAANR rules.

One way or another, countries or regions will set their own noise standards, even if the pressure they apply is not the law but the simple refusal to build runways unless aviation works harder to get quieter, faster. This is likely to control what actually happens out there, not the ICAO. The airports can see this coming. The airlines cannot turn a blind eye forever.

Source: Flight International