Switzerland and Germany say they want to settle their long-standing dispute over flight noise from Zurich airport by the end of the year.
The move was announced on Monday after talks in Berlin between Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger and his German counterpart, Peter Ramsauer.
Leuenberger told journalists in the German capital that as “neighbours with close friendly ties” both wanted to bring an end to this seven-year-long quarrel.
A joint working group is to be set up in April to work out a bilateral agreement on noise levels caused by flights into and out of Zurich airport which pass over nearby German territory.
The group, which will include Swiss and German government officials, as well as representatives of canton Zurich and the German Baden-Württemberg region, will aim to come up with concrete proposals for the end-of-year deadline.
The two ministers will meet again to oversee progress from May 26-28, when the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany also takes place, Leuenberger told swissinfo.ch.
“Tough nuts to crack”
The Swiss cabinet minister admitted there had been tensions over this issue and the two countries’ positions were “quite far apart”.
There were still “quite a few tough nuts to crack", said Leuenberger, adding that many different parties were involved in the complex issue.
He said both governments had agreed not to disclose the contents of their discussions.
"There are many different parties involved in this process, not only transport ministers, but also the regions, cities, the airport, and if we start airing everything in public again, then we are conjuring up demons that prevent a solution,” he stressed.
But both have outlined their starting points and want a “new solution”, said the Swiss minister.
For his part, Ramsauer stressed that Germany is still interested "in achieving a good compromise" and said both sides were keen to achieve “reasonable results” by the end of this year.
But Switzerland’s Tages-Anzeiger paper was not very optimistic Ramsauer would make many concessions to the Swiss. In a recent article, it pointed to his attack last year on the former German transport minister’s lack of concern for German regions affected by noise pollution caused by Salzburg airport in Austria.
The Zurich paper also indicated Ramsauer had contacts with politicians belonging to a flight noise protest group from southern Germany.
In 2003 Germany imposed restrictions on inbound weekend and night flights to Zurich over the southern part of the country after complaints from locals. This meant that aircraft were forced to fly over some of the Swiss city's most populated areas, including the homes of some of the area's richest residents.
The restrictions came after parliament refused to ratify an accord with Berlin on the number of flight movements from Zurich airport, which is about 20km away from the German border.
Over the past seven years Switzerland has sought in vain to ease the flight restrictions.
But since the setting up of a joint Swiss-German noise pollution study following the visit to Switzerland by Chancellor Angela Merkel in April 2008, Swiss diplomats now feel they have a strong argument, said the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.
“It clearly emerged that the [noise pollution] burden lay mainly on the Swiss side, while in Germany only a few hundred people were affected by high noise levels,” it wrote on Tuesday.
People living in southern Germany blame Switzerland for allowing planes to use flight paths to protect their own population. They are demanding that they strictly follow the restrictions or even extend them.
In November 2007 voters in canton Zurich dismissed a people's initiative to restrict flight movements to and from Zurich airport to 250,000 a year.
Instead, they accepted a counter proposal from the canton Zurich authorities that set up a "noise pollution index" to cap movements once enough households were affected by noise.
The airport handled 262,121 flight movements in 2009, but a government report expects that number to grow to 450,000 by 2030. Economists believe a restriction on flights could cost billions of francs and thousands of jobs.
Juan Carlos Tellechea in Berlin, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from Spanish by Simon Bradley)
Aircraft noise pollution has been a much bigger issue in canton Zurich since October 2003 when Germany banned night and weekend flights en route to Zurich airport over parts of its southern territory.
The ban followed the collapse of negotiations between Switzerland and Germany to resolve the situation. A compromise deal was thrown out by the Swiss parliament.
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.
Zurich airport was used by 21.9 million passengers in 2009, a drop of 0.8% from 2008. The number of take-offs and landings (movements) was recorded at 262,121, down 4.7% on 2008.
January saw an increase in both numbers of passengers (1.6 million, up 6.5%) and movements (20,736, up 7%) from January 2008.
Full financial figures have yet to be released for 2009, but the half-year results showed a 41% decline in profits to SFr47.2 million. This was put down to a falling passenger numbers and increased costs, particularly for noise pollution reduction measures.
Revenues fell for both aviation sources (SFr238.6 million, down 8.3%) and non-aviation activities (SFr157.1 million, down 4.4%). Passengers were also spending less at the airport – on average SFr43.20 compared with SFr44.07 in 2008.
The airport is expected to see the arrival of the first commercial Airbus A380 flights next month. An Airbus landed on Zurich tarmac in January to test the airport’s capability for handling the massive aircraft.
Switzerland’s air transport authorities are expected to grant a licence for the Airbus to use Zurich by March 28.
Zurich was voted Europe’s leading airport in 2009 for the sixth year in a row by the London-based World Travel Awards organisation. Zurich was praised for its user-friendliness and its general high-quality standards.