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Slow take-off House seals airport deal despite local buzz

Germany and Switzerland have long been at odds over how to control airplane noise at Zurich airport


The House of Representatives has approved an accord with Germany on flight noise around Zurich airport to give residents of southern Germany nearly 17 more hours of quiet per week – at the expense of people living in Switzerland.

Despite concerns expressed at the local level, the deal passed with 110 votes in favour and 66 against. Critics complained that it was a bad deal that yielded too much to Germany.

The agreement, hammered out last summer by Transport Minister Doris Leuthard and her German counterpart, now awaits ratification by Germany’s parliament. It passed 40-2 in the Swiss Senate in March but, as in the House on Thursday, only after much gnashing of teeth.

Although there are not yet definite plans as to how the noise measures will be achieved, representatives from cantons Zurich, Thurgau and Aargau are already uneasy. The deal calls for flight modifications to take effect in 2020.

Zurich airport

Zurich airport is the largest airport in Switzerland and is less than 20 kilometres from the German border.

Swiss International Air Lines – and thus its mother company, Germany’s Lufthansa – is the largest flight operator there, and therefore has an interest in the smooth running of air traffic at Zurich airport.

In 2012, around 25 per cent of all Zurich airport flights were between Switzerland and Germany.

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People’s Party member Alfred Heer, representing Zurich, called Leuthard “weak” and said it was a “scandal, the way Germany deals with Switzerland” – hinting that the wrangling with the United States over bank data was enough of a nuisance for Swiss parliamentarians.

After challenging Heer to run for her post if he could do it better, Leuthard pointed out that this sort of attitude had prevented previous efforts – dating back to 2001 – from taking off. She emphasised the fact that the deal would not limit the number of flights landing in Zurich via German air space, something that Germany had originally wanted.

Leuthard also noted that any modifications to the airport’s runways did not mean an increase in flights in and out of the airport. This had been a topic addressed by Green politicians concerned about the environmental aspect of airport business. The goal would be to maintain current traffic rather than reducing operations or fostering growth.

Transport commission spokesman Max Binder of the People’s Party in Zurich admitted that the accord was not ideal but encouraged the House to approve it to avoid a potentially worse deal via unilateral German regulation.

There has already been some criticism of the accord’s approval. Campaigners representing the communities and groups around the airport said they were disappointed that the House had dismissed an attempt to have the deal rejected. This would have allowed more time for clarification of safety and distribution of noise issues, they said. The Pro Flughafen (pro airport) group, however, called it “a painful, but acceptable compromise”.

In Germany doubts have already been expressed by political representatives in Baden-Württemberg, the affected region, that the deal would be accepted by Germany’s parliament.

Old dispute

The aircraft noise row is decades old but has had top political priority since 2000.  It concerns parts of southern Germany which suffer from aircraft noise when airplanes land at Zurich airport.

In 2003, Germany reduced the number of flights allowed over parts of its southern territory as well as banning night flights for that area. The development forced Zurich airport to redirect flights to its southern runway, passing over parts of the city and other densely populated areas of Switzerland. The Swiss have lost successive appeals over the German decree.

Since then a row has broken out in Switzerland in canton Zurich and with the neighbouring cantons of Aargau, Thurgau and Schaffhausen over the flight path.

In July 2012, the Swiss and German transport ministries hammered out the current agreement after five founds of negotiation – ultimately signing the deal in September and sending it to the Swiss parliament for approval.

Now it is up to Germany’s parliament to ratify the accord.

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