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Saturday, 31 March 2018

When your business case is under fire and your stakeholders don’t listen to you the way they used to do, you can always turn to some old-fashioned fearmongering… thinks the Dutch aviation industry


It has been the talk of the town during the last year.
Lelystad Airport, the new to develop airport in the polder of the “self-built” Dutch province Flevoland was designed to function as an overflow valve for Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, in order to relieve this mainport from its “dreaded”, low-budget charter passengers that bring in too little money and sales.

Due to government regulation based upon the maximum allowed hindrance for the Dutch citizens caused by noise pollution and polluted air coming from the national airport, Schiphol has a flight cap of roughly 500,000 slots (i.e. flights)  per year.  And this maximum number of flights per year has been approaching with a bedazzling speed.

By employing Lelystad Airport as the designated charter flight airport, Schiphol would be able to keep the more lucrative transit and business passengers in Amsterdam and still remain within the maximum number of slots per year. The charter passengers would then be banished to the polder where on a “pasture” in the middle-of-nowhere their flight would leave to their sunny destinations.

This was the plan!

Even though the maximally planned 45,000 flights per annum for Lelystad Airport would only be a drop in the ocean for the ever growing, ever slot-hungry airport Schiphol, it was a beginning.

The employment of Lelystad Airport had to be done in combination with the execution of Schiphol’s further plans to bend and massage the maximum number of 500,000 slots per year to a slightly higher number of say 520,000 – 530,000 slots per year.

Schiphol tried to do this via a broad and cunning lobby with direct access to ‘The Hague’, in combination with new arithmetical ways of measuring the noise pollution from the national airport.

As a matter of fact, Schiphol’s measurements of noise pollution were (virtually) never based upon real life checks with microphones and other sensitive measuring equipment on all kinds of locations close to the airport.

No, with the help of computer models and algorithms, the amount of noise pollution was calculated for the different living areas close to Schiphol, based upon weather data, physical data for sound transfer and known physical noise data from existing airplanes.

These calculations were made by research institutes that had traditionally strong ties with Schiphol, such as the National Aviation and Spacetravel centre (i.e. NLR) in The Netherlands. And the results were laid down in a so-called Environmental Effects Report (i.e. MER in Dutch).

Last year, a new MER was produced by Schiphol that “disclosed” that growth of almost 5% in the number of 500,000 slots would be feasible, due to a new way of measuring the noise pollution and due to the fact that the future airplanes would become more silent, fuel efficient and modern in the coming years.

Silent and fuel efficient engines were the panacea that would enable the further necessary growth for Schiphol on both Schiphol itself, as well as on Lelystad Airport.

Everybody happy, right?! Wrong!

Unfortunately for Schiphol, a few people – among which the now “infamous”  ICT engineer Leon Adegeest – ran the gauntlett and started to thoroughly check Schiphol’s Environmental Effect Report for Lelystad Airport. They found it to be laden with calculation errors, deliberate(?) false measurements and perhaps a lot of wishful thinking.

The following snippets are from NOS.nl, from an article of October, 2017:

When an airplane flies on low altitude, this causes more noise pollution than when an airplane flies on high altitude. There is nothing strange about that. Nevertheless, in research from the National Aviation and Spacetravel centre NLR into the environmental effects and the accompanying noise pollution coming from Lelystad Airport, it was quoted totally differently.

In the data that had been used in the research, it was stated that an airplane on 900 meters altitude does not cause noise pollution. Leon Adegeest of the action group HoogOverijssel (i.e. High Overijssel) became very suspicious and started an investigation himself.

Two weeks ago the error in the calculation of the ministry was discovered. “The ministry used airplane characteristics for landing and take off, that were totally unrealistic and produced extremely low noise statistics as a consequence of this lack of realism”, according to Adegeest. “In our investigation we used more realistical profiles and therefore we found soon where the differences came from”.  

These discoveries by Adegeest, as well the never desisting lobby on the social media of Adegeest and his sympathizers (including yours truly) put the floodgates open with respect to Lelystad Airport. An old Minister for the Environment even invented the verb “Schiphollen” for not telling the truth and rigging the results of scientific investigations.

Suddenly all Environmental Effects Reports and other information regarding possible passenger growth coming from the likes of Schiphol, were distrusted by the Dutch people: not only for Lelystad Airport, but also with regards to Schiphol itself. The people felt for the umpteenth time betrayed by their government with unreal data and much too optimistical stories about the positive effects of aviation in The Netherlands, while totally ignoring the negative effects of this passenger growth for safety and national health.

The Dutch people living in the mid-country provinces felt sacrificed for the interests of Schiphol and Lelystad Airport, especially when it became clear that airplanes coming from Lelystad Airport would remain on a very low altitude (approximately 2 kilometers) for hundreds of kilometers, in order not to interfere with the airplanes taking off from Schiphol itself.

After this situation had festered for a few months, the new Minister for Infrastructure and Waterworks, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, could hardly do anything else than postponing the opening of Lelystad Airport from early 2019 to 2020 or even later.

And now the mess for Schiphol was complete: their cherished Lelystad Airport would remain closed for at least one more year, with an increasing risk that it would never open at all. This as a consequence of mounting public pressure upon the political leaders and the increasing odds of losing the business case, due to environmental hazards.

On top of that, also Schiphol’s own MER was put under intensified scrutiny as a consequence of the errors in the MER for Lelystad Airport and the assumption that Schiphol’s MER could be error-prone itself due to flawed calculations based upon wrong assumptions. This put the desired expansion of the number of slots under serious jeopardy.

As a matter of fact the whole business model of Schiphol and the airlines it services is based on unhampered, steady growth until “eternity”. Every year Schiphol wants more globally operating airlines, more slots, more passengers, more freight, more destinations and more sales in their countless shops, restaurants and bars and real estate buildings. In their world standing still means trailing behind the global competition.

This was the reason that Schiphol, and especially the whole aviation industry connected to the national airport, wrote a pressing letter to the press, thus ringing the alarm bell ‘for the future of the airport’.  

Here are the pertinent snippets from an AD-article:

When the cabinet decides to lock up Schiphol up to and including 2020, this will come at the expense of employment, the establishment climate for new businesses and the attainableness [of The Netherlands – EL] as a whole. This warning was administered by various stakeholders of Schiphol, among which KLM, Easyjet, Corendon, travel organization ANVR, labour unions CNV and VNV and the logistical industry organizations TLN and Evofendex.

The number of flights that comes and goes to and from Schiphol has almost reached its peak level of 500,000 flights per year. Recently the cabinet decided not to water down the agreements with respect to this number of flights up to and including 2020. By doing this, the government does not wait for the results of a new report with respect to the reduction of hindrance for the people living around Schiphol, according to the parties involved.

In a joint statement, these companies speak of an unresponsable blockade of the airport and they want to quickly deliberate with minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen of Infrastructure, in order to come to “appropriate agreements”. 

The parties point towards a paragraph in the government agreement, regarding more silent and clean airplanes, that leaves room for further growth.

Of course I understand these people. When your whole business case is based upon the notion that you have to grow over and over again in order to stay in the business, this letter makes very much sense.

And of course, even when Schiphol plays a “neutral role” in this letter (see the unprinted remainder of this article in the AD newspaper), in order to not offend the Dutch national government, it is logical that the airport also wants to grow to at least 600,000 slots per year.

Nevertheless, as the situation around Lelystad Airport already showed out, it is extremely complicated to accommodate more than half a million flights per year in a very small country like The Netherlands; especially when these flights have to take off and land on no less than 5 main airports (Schiphol Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Lelystad and Maastricht Aachen Airport) within a very limited amount of air space. And all these airports need to have their own slice of the air space pie in order to service their passengers quickly and safely.

The fact that flights from Lelystad have to remain at two kilometers of altitude for dozens or hundreds of kilometers of their flight path shows how darn difficult it is to offer safe airspace for all these travellers. And this will only become worse when Schiphol Airport wants to grow to say 600,000 slots.

Of course, what all these airliners and other stakeholders of Schiphol want to point out with their letter is not only fearmongering. Things might indeed become a little harder for these stakeholders when Schiphol can’t grow anymore… But it is not as if their sheer future and existence is on the line when further growth is not possible!

A situation of unhampered growth for aviation in The Netherlands is utopian, due to the limited air space, the very dense population and the consequential safety precautions that must be above average to keep the Dutch people safe.

It is just not so that the whole current air fleet visiting The Netherlands will turn into green, electrical airplanes alone tomorrow and that all the noisy kerosine guzzlers avoid Schiphol all of a sudden. Noise pollution and particulates from kerosine burning will still have their influence on the mental and physical health of the Dutch population and safety of airplanes will remain an issue for the future in such a densely populated country.

Instead of trying to avoid the inevitable by ringing the alarm bells and sending pressing letters to the news media, the aviation industry could better think of a future with stable or even slightly declining numbers of slots. Just because they can’t keep on growing forever!

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