Restricting the number of flights at Zurich airport could damage Switzerland's economy, the author of a new report into air traffic has told swissinfo.
The former head of the Swiss Institute for Business Cycle Research, Bernd Schips, believes meeting increased demand for air transport is vital if Switzerland is to remain competitive.
The economist was commissioned by Zurich airport operator Unique to examine the consequences of flight restrictions after local residents objected to the amount of noise pollution caused by aircraft taking off and landing.
Flight restrictions may go to a public vote next year, but Schips warns that the national economy must be put before local interests if Switzerland is not to be left behind in the race to exploit rapidly growing global markets.
swissinfo: Why do you think flight restrictions at Zurich airport will damage the economy?
Bernd Schips: Net exports of goods and services as well as direct investments to foreign countries are very important for the Swiss economy, and without continued growth in these areas Gross Domestic Product will decrease. At least 30 per cent of total exports are sent by air.
If you look at the regional distribution of direct investments you see that the important areas are North America, some parts of South America and increasingly the Far East and Russia. To service these areas you need air transport.
swissinfo: How much do you think demand for air transport will grow in future?
B.S.: A fair forecast is an annual growth rate of between 2.5 and 3.5 per cent. Air transport will increase in the next 15 years and that is part of globalisation.
The only chance for a small, open country like Switzerland to be on the winning side in this process is to export goods and services and direct investments to emerging markets all over the world. If you want to start businesses in places like Russia, India and China, you need air transport.
swissinfo: Should Zurich airport expand?
B.S.: The growth of the airport itself is not as important as the growth in demand for air transport. You have to ask if the airport can satisfy this demand, and if not, then you need expansion.
swissinfo: Do you believe Zurich should remain a hub?
B.S.: If you need direct flights to North America and Asia it is important to have a hub, but it is not so important for eastern Europe so the issue is a little bit difficult. It is all a question of how efficiently can Switzerland transport goods and passengers.
swissinfo: Is there an option of meeting demand by using other airports such as Geneva?
B.S.: Geneva is only important for southwestern Switzerland and Italy; but for the whole German-speaking part of Switzerland, Zurich airport is the only option. It is more efficient to have one main airport and two or three smaller airports.
swissinfo: And other forms of transport?
B.S.: The airport is part of the traffic infrastructure and you can only make minor substitutions by train. The demand is growing for the furthest destinations, not for local European ones.
swissinfo: What about locals who are complaining about noise pollution?
B.S.: You have to make a choice. It's a trade-off between local concerns about noise and other kinds of emissions on the one hand and the interests of the whole economy on the other side. The wealth of Switzerland depends on how well the country can take part in the globalisation process.
swissinfo-interview: Matthew Allen in Zurich
A 2003 ban on Zurich-bound aircraft flying over the southern Germany at certain times forced more flights to be redirected over residential areas in Switzerland.
A people's initiative in 2000 called for flight movements at Zurich airport to be restricted to 250,000. But studies predict demand to grow from 2.5 to 3.5 per cent annually and the Zurich cantonal authorities have proposed a ceiling of 320,000 movements.
Current regulations set no limit to the number of flights and the airport has a current capacity of 350,000 per year.
Zurich airport handled 267,363 flight movements in 2005, up 3% on the previous year.
The record number of movements at the airport was 325,000 in 2000.
A report commissioned by canton Zurich last year predicted the airport would meet its 350,000 flight capacity by 2020, generating income worth around SFr20 billion per year and helping create 67,000 jobs.
A limit of 320,000 movements would cost the local economy more than SFr2 billion a year, the report concluded.