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Valais hopes to clip air force's wings

Supporters of the initiative say jet fighter noise has got much worse in the Valais region Keystone

In a week's time the Swiss public will vote on an initiative proposed by environmentalist Franz Weber to halt air force jet flights over tourist areas.

This content was published on February 15, 2008 - 15:21

swissinfo visited the southern canton of Valais - a region heavily dependent on tourism - to find out what all the noise was about, and why there has only been limited local public support for the initiative so far.

"The F/A 18s are so noisy that you have to stop talking to the person opposite as you can't understand what they're saying," complained Jean-Nicolas Revez, president of the Valais camping association and owner of Botza campsite, situated eight kilometres from Sion's joint civilian-military airport.

"Individually, there are not huge numbers of complaints from each tourist resort, but if you add them together they make up quite a few," explained Vincent Bornet, deputy director of Valais Tourism.

Tourism is the main income generator in the alpine region stretching along the upper Rhône Valley from the Furka Pass to Lake Geneva. But the area is also of strategic importance to the Swiss military, which has operated an airbase out of Sion since 1943.

Unlike the two larger Swiss bases, Payerne and Meiringen, Sion does not have a permanent pilot set-up. But as it only takes a few minutes to fly to Sion from one of the other bases, for 23 weeks of the year F/A 18 Hornets, Tiger F-5s and PC-21 trainer planes fly in and out of the base.

"Some days it's terrible. It echoes in the valley and at times it's deafening," said Vincent Vultagio, who lives at Châteauneuf opposite the airport.

The air force says that, while not minimizing the noise problems, especially those of the F/A 18s, which use ear-splitting post-combustion techniques to give a turbo effect on take-off, the region is not "under siege".

Over a year, the accumulated noise of the jets taking off amounts to only four hours, it claims, and by 2010 there should be a 30 per cent drop in the total number of movements (take-offs and landings).

But while the number of Tiger missions will fall, ahead of its replacement with a new fighter, those of the F/A 18s, which are twice as noisy, will climb.

Complaints

Locals criticise the air force for not keeping its word in the past over the number of flights, and for not looking into complaints.

But Antoine Jacquot, director of the Sion airbase, felt it took the concerns of the local population and tourist sector seriously.

"We are currently in dialogue with the canton over flight plans and we have introduced different measures to restrict the period of noise," he said.

These include only flying during office hours and not at night, on weekends or during major holidays, using more flight simulators, flying abroad more often, having two planes take off at the same time if possible, and spending SFr20 million to soundproof local residents' apartments.

Deaf population?

With one week to go before the vote, few people in the Valais region have come out publicly in support of Franz Weber and his initiative.

The main source of doubt hovers over the airport's future.

"The initiative is very extreme, as a total ban could cause problems and damage the airport's survival," said Bornet.

Sion airport is said to generate SFr80 million of annual income for the region and it is estimated that it would cost the local authorities SFr4.5 million annually to run it without the military.

But behind the scenes many are hoping for a good score, in particular to put pressure on the military during their talks with the canton over flight plans and land registry issues.

For Yves Balet, president of the local pressure group ARAS, which represents the interests of the tourism, business and real estate sectors, "80 per cent of people want a mixed civilian-military solution for the airport".

"But noise is not the main issue," he said.

What is more important for locals, he said, is the impact of a noise exposure register to be approved by the military on the value of local private land that could affect over 6,000 people.

"When it's about land people fight tooth and nail," said Balet.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Sion

In brief

The Swiss public will vote on the initiative "against the noise of jet fighters in tourist areas" on February 24.

The initiative, proposed by environmentalist Franz Weber and his organisation "Helvetia Nostra", calls for the banning of all military exercises using jet fighters over tourist areas during times of peace. It was signed by 113,000 people and handed in on November 2005.

Supporters of the text want to see a reduction in the number of training flights and for the jets – and their associated noise problems - to be better distributed.

The Swiss air force has 33 F/A-18 Hornet and 54 Tiger jet fighters, which are due to be replaced by a new plane as from 2011. Over recent years, the number of airbases has been reduced from 15 to three, Payerne, Meiringen and Sion.

Supporters claim that the noise of the jets has an impact on humans and animals and are particularly damaging to the environment, economy, tourism and value of real estate. They claim the F/A-18 is one of the noisiest planes in the world, emitting up to 124 decibels at take-off.

Opponents argue that, given the smallness of Swiss territory, all flights have to cross tourist areas and, thus, by accepting the initiative, the Swiss public would stop all training flights and effectively end the Swiss air force.

According to a public poll carried out between January 28 and February 2 by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, swissinfo's parent organisation, only 34% of respondents accept the initiative, while 55% reject it.

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