IATA director general Willie Walsh believes other governments will take note of the legal processes to follow after the Dutch government was forced to drop a plan to cut capacity at Amsterdam Schiphol airport amid mounting pressure.

The Dutch government had last summer proposed cutting flight capacity at Schiphol – from an annual maximum of 500,000 down to 440,000 – in a bid to find a “new equilibrium” between flight activity and noise pollution at the airport. 

Schiphol airport

Source: Jan van der Wolf/Shutterstock.com

Moves to reduce capacity at Schiphol airport were due to be implemented next summer

The plan was subsequently widely contested by airlines, including a legal challenge by carriers and trade association IATA. Notably though it was complaints from US carriers, backed by the Department of Transportation, which appeared to be a tipping point.

ln mid-November the Dutch government shelved the plan, saying numerous countries, including the USA, “raised concerns” about the new scheme, and that it may violate Open Skies agreements. “In the eyes of the United States, the capacity reduction would be unjust, discriminatory and anti-competitive for airlines,” transport and infrastructure minister Mark Harbers said.

The European Commission had also warned it was reserving the right to start infringement proceedings against the Netherlands in the next infringement round, “due to…non-compliance with European regulations”, Harbers adds.

Speaking on 6 December at IATA’s annual media day in Geneva, Walsh said: “I’m hopeful there will be a better understanding of the process that needs to be followed and that we won’t see other governments embarrassing themselves by reaching for solutions they think will be popular but which fail to fulfil the legal obligations that they have.”

Walsh says he was surprised to see the government embark on such a move given the importance of Schiphol to the Netherlands’ economy.

“Schiphol punches way above its weight given the local origin and destination market that exists there. It’s a fantastic hub airport,” he says. “I think the impact that it would have had, had the government not backed down, would have been really significant. I think it would have undermined the whole integrity of the hub operation there.”

He also takes heart from the united front shown by the airline sector in challenging the cut. ”I think what was encouraging from an industry point of view is that everybody in the industry opposed what was happening. 

“You might have expected some people to see this as a competitive opportunity. The dismantling of the Amsterdam hub would have benefited some of the other hubs in Europe, but nobody took that view. They all took the view that this was wrong and that the industry had to stand to together, so I was very pleased that that happened.”

While saying the industry has to “recognise that noise is an issue”, Walsh expresses frustration that air travel is targeted given the impact from other modes of transport. He cites 2017 European Environment Agency data, the latest available, which he says shows four times as many people are impacted by noise from rail and 30 more by noise from roads. “Yet air travel is the one that seems to get all of the attention.”

Outside of Europe, Mexico is another country where the government has moved to impose capacity cuts, in this case at Mexico City International airport. Walsh argues such short-term changes can make airlines review their commitment to airports, particularly in the current environment.

“Today we have a situation where airlines have fewer aircraft than they would like to have because of the delays in the delivery of new aircraft and the problems with the supply chain,” notes Walsh. ”So it’s not like normal years where airlines are looking for new growth opportunities. They have fewer aircraft, so moving those aircraft to more attractive markets and more stable markets is something we are witnessing.” 

UK TO CHANGE SLOT RULES?

While the Schiphol noise issue has gone quiet, further government intervention in Europe could now follow at another major European hub. In early December the UK government, now no longer covered by European Union slot regulations, launched a consultation on whether to revamp its own rules covering slot-constrained airports in a move seemingly aimed at loosening the grip on prized slots by incumbent carriers.

Raising the existing 80:20 slot usage rates, greater transparency with slot-allocation decisions, limiting the length of slot leases and time-restricting the allocation of new slots are among a number of topics up for consultation.

”I think slot allocation is a very complex issue that isn’t fully understood by a lot of people,” says Walsh. “It really is a very fine, integrated system that needs to be carefully addressed because one airport undoing its slot allocation rules can have a global impact. Heathrow would have a global impact.”

IATA Willie Walsh at ALTA

Source: ALTA

IATA director general Willie Walsh, speaking during the ALTA Airline Leaders Forum in Cancun in October 2023

London Heathrow is one of eight slot-controlled airports in the UK.

“That is not to say we can’t improve things,” he adds. “We’ve seen various minor amendments in the rules over the years, so there is always scope to look at better ways of doing it. But to fundamentally dismantle a system that has been very effective I think is something governments should be very cautious of.”