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Airport noise test case wins compensation


A homeowner who brought the first in a series of noise pollution court cases against Zurich airport has been awarded SFr170,000 ($160,000) compensation.

The Federal Court ordered airport operators Unique to compensate for lost property value. The ruling could open the floodgates for thousands of similar claims, costing up to an estimated SFr1.2 billion.

Wednesday’s decision has been viewed as a partial victory for householders who live on flight paths. The court both knocked down the claimant’s request for SFr280,000 and rejected Unique’s argument for the case to be dismissed.

The final compensation award included interest, but SFr20,000 of the payment was already covered by sound resistant windows previously installed by Unique at the property.

It was the first of 17 test cases from the village of Opfikon to be heard by the Federal Court, with some 19,000 households in other areas poised to sue Unique pending on the results.

“It’s about what we expected. But with 16 other cases pending, it is too early to predict how this will affect the total number of compensation claims,” Unique spokeswoman Sonia Zöchling told swissinfo.

Zöchling added that the total compensation bill was expected to be at the lower end of the SFr800 million to SFr1.2 billion previously estimated. Unique will recover the costs through a noise surcharge levied on passengers and airlines.

The lawyer representing homeowners hailed the verdict as a “total victory” and a “logical result”. However, he criticised the slow pace of the legal machine that had delayed some claims made as early as 1988.

Flight restrictions

The case was brought after a specialist committee of the federal environment ministry judged in 2006 that the properties had lost at least 17.5 per cent in value because of noise pollution. Unique argued that damages should only be awarded if the value was reduced by more than a third, but the committee put the figure at ten per cent.

It used a computational model developed by the Zurich Cantonal Bank to determine the impact of noise on house prices.

The problem of aircraft noise pollution was exacerbated by a 1996 reorganisation of Switzerland’s former national airline Swissair. It was made even worse seven years later when Germany banned flights over its southern territory at night and during weekends.

Last year, voters in the canton 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. This would probably kick in once movements reach 320,000.

The airport handled nearly 270,000 flight movements in 2007, 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.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

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.

A people’s initiative to restrict movements in and out of Zurich airport was officially presented in December 2004.

Zurich airport handled 268,476 flight movements in 2007, a 2.9% rise on the previous year.
The first month of 2008 experienced a 10% increase in movements to 23,131 compared with January last year.
Some 20,740,000 passengers passed through Zurich airport in 2007, an increase of 7.8% on 2006.
January 2008 saw an 8.4% rise in passengers compared with the same month last year to 1,544,640.
Much of January’s increased demand was put down to the World Economic Forum in Davos, which attracts more people every year.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR