Europe's decision to jump ahead of international regulation over the highly contentious issue of noise pollution may put it "at the forefront of elaborating the most stringent environmental standards for aircraft" but equally runs the risk of destroying the longer term goal of uniform environmental standards.

Nowhere is the noise problem more acute than in Europe, where the population density is becoming a major determinant in any transportation decisions. But the European Parliament's 10 February endorsement of the European Commission's proposed legislation to place onerous restrictions on hushkitted commercial transports operating in Western Europe raises again the thorny issue of regional rules versus international aviation standards.

Increasingly, individual states or groups of countries are unilaterally deciding to steal the march on ICAO, the internationally accepted aviation rulemaker, and set local mandates despite having agreed to ICAO guidelines established with the co-operation and consensus of all of its 185 member states.

At the local level, unilateral rulemaking is escalating with European airports imposing penalties and other restrictions in response to mounting pressure to cut noise. For the 15-nation EU, some form of Europe-wide regulation is needed before local authorities start taking the law into their own hands, spelling eventual fragmentation and disruption of the internal European market which the EU has fought so hard to create.

Understandable, then, that the EU has decided to step in quickly, even if by doing so it is flagrantly challenging ICAO's authority and jurisdiction on global aviation do's and don'ts.

What the EU plans to overturn is the ICAO ruling, agreed in 1990, which puts 1 April, 2002, as the final cut-off date for the phasing out of old aircraft only cleared to Chapter 2 noise restriction standards. Instead, it wants to freeze any further registration of hushkitted aircraft in the EU from 1 April this year and ban aircraft fitted with hushkits and registered elsewhere from flying in Europe from 1 April, 2002, unless they are already operating there before April 1999.

Apart from embarrassing ICAO, the move has spurred a transatlantic row with the USA which claims the new legislation would harm US carriers, devalue hushkitted aircraft, and disrupt transatlantic trade in aircraft, engines and air transport services and finance. .

US airlines have a higher percentage of older aeroplanes in their fleets and have been installing hushkits on older models because the FAA ruled that all US jets operating in the USA must meet newer noise standards, known as Stage 3, by 1 January, 2000. Europe says hushkits perform much worse than current production aircraft in fuel consumption and noise pollution terms. It counters US claims that its new legislation discriminates against US industry, saying it is the USA's own fault for making its carriers invest in hushkits rather than new aircraft simply to meet a nationally enforced deadline of 2000, instead of aiming for the ICAO 2002 date for the phase-out of old aircraft. All hushkit manufacturers are US-based.

The US authorities say there is no technical or scientific basis for distinguishing among aircraft that comply with Chapter 3 standards and warns that the legislation could easily lead to a patchwork of national and regional standards with little additional environmental benefit.

Both ICAO and the US Government have been taken by surprise by the EU decision as they thought they had headed off the EU plans to implement noise restrictions on a regional basis. But with the EU legislation so far down the road, the damage to ICAO's credibility has been done. If the "hushkit rule" is allowed to proceed, ICAO's ability to function in the future will be in jeopardy simply because airports and airlines around the world would no longer agree to a standard if they knew that all the ICAO members would not honour it. If international agreements break down on the environment, they will unravel over security, navigation and other civil aviation protocols. ICAO must move quickly to find new ways of meeting demands rather than be faced year on year with a barrage of disparate new laws out of step with international agreements.

Source: Flight International