The international civil-aviation community is bracing itself for the next imposition of environmental standards for aircraft. These new standards should lead to a significant reduction in the impact of airliners on the environment, which can only be welcomed. Unfortunately, there is a danger that individual pressure groups pandering to local priorities may seek to hijack the usual process and, in so doing, cause irreparable damage to the industry they seek to regulate.

The problem with airliner noise is that while everybody wants it reduced, just about every trend in civil aviation encourages it to increase. Airliners are getting bigger and heavier: they carry more passengers greater distances, and they need more power with which to do it.

It is true that improvements in engine technology mean that the latest engines produce less noise per unit thrust than any of their predecessors. Despite this progress, it is inevitable that standards are going to be tightened, and the industry is going to have to find technical (and economic) solutions to meet those standards. This is not the main concern, however. The real problem facing the industry is: whose standards are to be met?

Baseline noise standards have traditionally been set by the appropriate international body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Those standards have enjoyed widespread international acceptance even if, in isolated local cases, they have been deemed to be too lenient. In noise-sensitive areas such as southern California, aircraft which meet general standards have either been banned for not meeting locally imposed standards, or have been subjected to specific operating procedures.

In the normal course of events, ICAO's regulators, who have already signalled the demise of the Stage 2 airliner, would implement the next stage of regulations (the so-called Stage 4) as a logical follow-on. Just what those new standards should be is due to be decided by ICAO's Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) in December: their likely limits have been canvassed widely, and are unlikely to contain any great surprises.

Those proposed new rules, too, might be interpreted more harshly in some localities than in others. There are now, however, other, more-encompassing, bodies wanting to influence the regulations, the most significant of them being the European Union (EU). The danger is that the European Commission will try unilaterally to impose harsher (or just different) rules than the CAEP's recommendations in its territories, or that it will try to impose them to a different timetable.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents the airlines which will have to pay for new aircraft which satisfy the new regulations, is (not unnaturally) pushing for these new regulations to be delayed if they cannot be made less stringent. It argues that the cost of ICAO's proposals to the airlines could reach $50 billion, much of it arising from the needlessly premature retirement of what are considered at the moment to be perfectly environmentally acceptable aircraft.

The world's airports (especially those in the Western world) are (equally, not unnaturally) pressing for the most stringent regulations, implemented as soon as possible. For them, the introduction of quieter aircraft will always ease their community-relations problems, which are becoming ever more pressing as traffic rises.

The confusion arising from different groups trying to impose differing standards on differing timescales would be damaging to an industry which (even if it is seeing a modest cyclical upturn) is still in a fragile economic state. The only solution must be for the one body which has a genuine international remit (ICAO) to be left to produce the new regulations, and the timetable for their introduction. That does not diminish the validity of the arguments of the various pressure groups, be they airlines, airports or the EU: it merely serves to remind them that air transport is a truly international industry, and can only effectively be regulated on a truly international basis.


Source: Flight International