Brussels Airlines challenges Brussels Airport’s new permit

Brussels Airlines is going to the Council for Permit Disputes against the new environmental permit for Brussels Airport. According to the airline, European rules were not respected.

Thirteen environmental organizations and residents’ associations are also taking the same step, following the lead of the Walloon government and Brussels Environment Minister Alain Maron (Ecolo). They say the conditions imposed in the permit are insufficient to protect residents’ health and lift the impact on the climate and the environment.

European procedure as a lifeline

In March, the Flemish government approved the new permit. It does not ban night flights but does impose the maximum number of flight movements of 240,000 per year from 2032 (compared to 192,257 last year) and provides measures to limit noise pollution for residents. These include phased silent weekend nights and a 30% reduction by 2030 to accommodate people seriously disturbed in their sleep.

Brussels Airlines, part of the German group Lufthansa, now believes that the flight cap imposed today will drastically limit future opportunities for the airline. It denounced, for example, that the new license would not have followed the “Balanced Approach” procedure imposed by Europe. “Operational restrictions can only be applied after other options have been explored first, and, therefore, not as a first resort,” it states.

The airline stresses that it has no objection to targets to combat noise pollution and reduce emissions from the aviation sector. It also says it is aware of its environmental impact and is committed to reducing its emissions and nuisance for residents near the airport. It is gradually renewing its fleet with the arrival of new aircraft, the A320neos, which emit up to 20% fewer emissions than its predecessors and produce 50% less noise.

“The sole purpose of this procedure is to apply the Balanced Approach.” This should lead to “a balance between the environment, liveability, and economic development.”

Also, impact on climate and nature

The 13 organizations feel the new permit barely includes effective measures to limit noise pollution. Night flights saddle more than 150,000 residents with severe sleep problems, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The organizations, including Bond Beter Leefmilieu Vlaanderen, also point out that the Supreme Health Council recently called for night flights to be phased out, a first. Moreover, the organizations argue that a Transport & Mobility Leuven study shows that banning night flights hardly costs any jobs and could even lead to more quality jobs.

They say the environmental impact report did not sufficiently investigate sleep disturbance, nor did the permit include sufficient measures to protect sleep. The organizations make the case that this constitutes legal grounds to annul the permit.

In addition, the organizations also denounce that the new permit does not prevent the rampant growth of air cargo and the number of passengers, which will inevitably increase the impact on the climate.

Furthermore, according to the organizations, nitrogen emissions from aircraft will cause nature to suffer even more. They say little is being done in return, which violates European and Flemish nature legislation.

Finally, the organizations also complain that the environmental impact report only assumes a maximum growth scenario and does not examine alternatives, although this is required by law.

In the footsteps of Schiphol

Brussels Airport Company will not seek an annulment of the environmental permit itself. Still, it is filing an appeal against a measure relating to the diabolo surcharge that trains passengers to the airport must pay. The ecological permit states that “a charge will be imposed on Brussels Airport Company, with an annual payment of 10 million euros to Infrabel, to be used entirely to reduce the diabolo surcharge for train passengers. That way, travel by train will be more encouraged.”

But the surcharge came about based on a partnership between the federal government and a private player, “and it is, therefore, not up to the airport to finance the diabolo rail infrastructure.” The airport operator did say it would wait for the European Balanced Approach study. “First, the conclusions must be known before additional operating restrictions can be imposed,” it concludes.

Brussels Airlines and Brussels Airport are following the Netherlands’ example. There, the outgoing cabinet was forced in November to suspend a contraction plan for Schiphol after legal objections temporarily. For instance, European transport commissioner Adina Vălean had expressed concerns about the first step in the shrinkage plan.

It would violate European law because the airline industry had not been adequately consulted beforehand. This meant that the required balanced approach procedure had not been followed.

Record year in turnover

Financially, the airport operator is otherwise doing well: last year, it realized a turnover of 705 million euros, 28% more than in 2022 and a record. This is due to increased passenger numbers (+17% compared to 2022 to 22,2 million), indexation of the airport charges paid to the operator, and more income from building rentals, says Brussels Airport Company.

While turnover reached a record high, profit figures are not yet at the level of 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. That year, the company realized an operating profit of 200 million euros and a net profit of 76 million euros.

Passenger numbers are also not yet at pre-corona levels. In 2019, the airport had received a record 26,4 million passengers. It expects to come close to that number again in 2025. This year, passenger numbers will be 90% of 2019, equivalent to 24 million.

Cargo transport reached 700,000 tons in 2023, a second consecutive decline after the record year 2021 when cargo operations benefited from the transport of coronavirus vaccines and the boom in e-commerce during lockdowns.

Despite the improved results, shareholders will again receive no dividend for the fifth year. This is to “consolidate the company’s financial strength and fund future investments.” The federal government holds a 25% stake in the airport operator, with the rest held by private funds.

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