European airports are about to face security and noise legislation that will raise costs and make it more difficult to conduct their business

It is not a good time to be an airport owner or operator in Europe. Two new European Union laws are about to present airports with higher costs and increase the likelihood that attempts to develop their businesses will face local opposition.

New regulations being rushed through the European Parliament will introduce mandatory standardisation in airline security, replacing the disparate and mostly advisory systems in operation today. At the same time the Parliament will introduce further measures to counter threats like the 11 September terrorist attack on the USA. The result will be an inevitable increase in security costs with no prospect of extra business in proportion to the investment.

Meanwhile, by 1 April the European Union is expected to set the seal of law on rules for controlling airport noise levels that will please the airlines but distress the airports and local communities. The new rules represent the abandonment of an EU attempt to adopt stricter, standardised European aircraft noise rules, officially dumping the problem of setting airport noise standards onto the airports and their surrounding communities - but also limiting what they may do and how they do it.

If the airlines take full advantage of the less stringent noise controls, it will inevitably make it harder for the airports to conduct business in harmony with local communities. The Airports Council Internation Europe (ACI-E) is warning the airlines that to do so will lead to progressively more limiting local noise regulations with the long-term effect of making expansion more difficult or, at worst, of reducing the amount of business the airport - and therefore the airlines - can conduct.

Airport bosses are holding their breath waiting to find out whether the industry will have to pick up the whole tab for the additional security measures made necessary by the 11 September attacks, or if the EU will take some of that load - as the government is doing in the USA. The European Commission (EC) was expected to release its proposed regulation as Flight International went to press.

Who picks up the tab?

The proposal summarises the basic security measures approved at its first reading before the European Parliament, and recommendations drawn up by the EC. The first reading dealt mainly with outline proposals and the Parliament waved them through. But at the second reading - expected in February - the Parliament will debate the specifics both of the new basic compulsory security standards, and of the post-11 September additional measures and the means of financing them.

Immediately after 11 September the38-nation European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) set up working parties to recommend appropriate security responses, and these have been taken into account in the EC's recommendations to Parliament. They include provision for compulsory regular, security audits.

At the last meeting of the Council of Transport Ministers it was clear that two thirds of the EU nations favoured no government help for industry through security provision or funding assistance, while the remainder believe state help is necessary.

The EC recommendation to the Council was that states should provide for "additional" security measures on the grounds that, although the 11 September attack may have used passenger aircraft, it was not directed at aviation or passengers, but at a sovereign state.

ACI-E director of policy John Hume is hopeful of a "sensible" parliamentary reaction. He says that the EC and European Parliament have avoided making a knee-jerk reaction to security legislation, but he points out that the second sitting for the bill will be far more demanding than the first. Particular issues have to be thrashed out, including that of who will pay for11 September-related security measures.

ACI-E director general Philippe Hamon welcomes the "level playing field" that centralised security legislation will bring. At present, he says, some nations allow airports to charge passengers for extra security, while others prohibit charging. He points out that, in the UK, and elsewhere, airports even have to pay for a police presence in the passenger concourses, whereas other countries' airports are policed at state expense. Hamon insists, however, that when the new security measures become law, the state should be obliged to either provide the resources or fund them.

Small airports

Small airports are going to face a particular problem in coping with the costs of additional terrorism-related security measures and the much higher insurance costs that all the airports face, warns Hume. ECAC-proposed measures like having armed ramp guards for each aircraft would be extremely costly. Without state help, airports will have to raise charges to the airlines, and small airports will risk losing business which they may have won in the first place specifically because their charges were kept low.

In some areas, says Hamon, local government or even local chambers of commerce have covered the costs of improving small airports to attract the business that additional air services bring to the area. Low-fare airlines like Ryanair may have brought many provincial airports to life, but the carrier would leave for cheaper destinations if costs rose. That is the approach on which Ryanair has built its success, Hume points out.

The term "airport noise" is a misnomer. Aircraft make the noise, but the local population directs its venom at the airport. Inevitably a split develops in normally happy partnerships like the Association of European Airlines and ACI-E, for example. The airlines want to keep in service aircraft which barely comply with International Civil Aviation Organisation Chapter 3 standards for as long as it makes commercial sense. But Hume warns: "There's no free lunch here. If the airlines want to keep noisy aircraft they're going to lose airport capacity." Airport capacity in Europe is already a scarce commodity.

In 1996 the EC framed legislation to impose the world's toughest noise standards, but it has had to recant because the new rules - accepted by the European Parliament - were successfully challenged by the USA at ICAO. Now, under ICAO compulsion, the EC is recommending that the Parliament climb down and accept what has been dubbed "the balanced approach" to reducing airport noise (see panel). "The balanced approach has been tried in the USA and it failed," says Hume, adding sadly: "Now it has to be enshrined in European law by 1 April."

Banning aircraft

If an airport is finding its business threatened by tightening curfews or other government-imposed measures made in reaction to local protests against noise, the airport itself has no power to ban the noisiest aircraft - only local or central government may do that.

Hume will not speculate on how the Parliament will rule on the noise issue. Members of Parliament are angry with the EC for saddling it in the first place with legislation that did not stand up in the international context, and now for coming back and recommending regulations that are much less appealing to European voters. Hume is certain, however, that debate will be vigorous and admits that the legislation may at least be delayed, and possibly stopped, by those who oppose the balanced approach.

Source: Flight International