Since flightpaths were altered to and from Brussels in November, fewer people are affected by the nocturnal rumble of aircraft. But they are a furious “few”.
Life has become just that bit grimmer in the well-to-do commune of Grimbergen on the northern outskirts of Brussels. It's one of several Flemish communes lying directly under Brussels National Airport's new flight corridor. In the two months since the routes were changed, the number of planes flying overhead day and night has soared.
Residents complain that some 250 planes per day (one every six minutes) now take off along the new route – some 40 of them after 23.00. These numbers represent 55% of day flights and 80% of night flights leaving the airport. Locals are bracing themselves for more hardship come mid-March, when all night flights are due to fly over their rooftops.
To battle the noise, some residents have taken to wearing ear plugs and taking sleeping pills, while others have moved their bedrooms to their cellars. “The other night I was woken by a noisy plane flying overhead,” says Grimbergen resident Wim Coulier. “I couldn't get back to sleep and so I began to count planes. I counted 20 in the space of an hour,” says the IT consultant and father of two.
Coulier and others living in the affected areas have banded together to protest the new flight paths. Under the umbrella of Actie Noordrand/Daedalus, they are lobbying for flight routes to be dispersed geographically.
The group's key demand is the immediate cancellation of the changes. “Only a fair decentralisation of all flight paths, by day as well as by night, dispersed above all regions around the airport, including above Brussels can be a fair solution,” said a spokesperson for Actie Noordrand/Daedalus.
The group recently organised a “sleep in” at Brussels national airport, which attracted 1,000 protestors, says the group. Dressed in pyjamas and armed with thermos flasks, they camped out in a tranquil terminal.
Legal proceedings brought by the group against the Transport Ministry and airport authority BIAC were turned down last week by a Brussels court. Nevertheless, a deluge of complaints from residents has prompted the authorities of eight northern communes and the region of Vlaams Brabant to file a challenge with the Council of State (Raad van State).
With parliamentary elections in sight, politicians have been roused from their slumber to engage in a monumental political battle that threatens to paralyse the capital's skies.
After initially defending the new regulation, Flemish Environment Minister Vera Dua (Agalev) has suddenly delivered her federal counterpart Isabelle Durant, of the Francophone Ecolo party, with an ultimatum. “Brussels has categorically refused to harmonise noise pollution standards,” she complained last week. “If that (remains) the case, we have a trick up our sleeves: we will adopt their strict noise standards,” she was quoted as saying.
Spirit is the only Flemish party to have reacted enthusiastically to Dua's ultimatum. Members of the socialist SP.A, Spirit's partner, have criticised the “Green hypocrisy” of Dua and Durant for playing poker with some 3,000 jobs at parcel courier DHL, which has threatened to pull out of Belgium if night-flight rules are tightened.
But Durant, who masterminded an earlier ban on night flights that was reversed following pressure from the business sector, appears unwilling to back down. Her spokeswoman Isabelle Valentiny told me: “We have rerouted flights over less-populated areas to minimise the number of people affected.”
Durant's persistence has fuelled speculation among local residents that she pushed through the measures to curry favour for Ecolo among Walloon voters. Valentiny dismisses the idea out of hand and says the new path was selected after recommendations from an independent foreign expert and that it has halved the number of people affected by night flights.
“Overall noise levels are better that before. Even if there are more planes, they are quieter,” she notes, adding that measurements have shown an increase in average noise levels in only two communes. “And action will soon be taken to address this, such as banning noisy B-727 planes and insulating 12,000 affected houses.”
Residents of affected communes are less than happy with this explanation and say that the increased volume of flights is the core issue. They also claim that removing the noisy B-727s will only make things worse.
According to Coulier, for each grounded B-727, which produces some 95 decibels, 10 slightly quieter modern planes generating 85 decibels could take off without raising the average noise level. This is due, he explains, to the peculiar logarithmic nature of decibels. This means the airport could actually fly more planes while appearing to reduce noise pollution.
One of the World Health Organisation's key factors when evaluating the effects of noise pollution is the frequency with which loud disturbances occur. Local doctors warn that the high frequency of flights could have potentially serious health effects, including hypertension, increased incidences of cardiovascular complications and the psychological effects of disturbed sleep patterns.
These doctors have also demanded a full investigation into the health effects associated with the new corridor. They raise questions over the potentially carcinogenic exhaust emissions from the higher concentration of planes at lower altitudes (because they have to make more turns) along the new path.
Like other affected residents, Coulier is angry that they were not consulted about the changes beforehand. “This project affects thousands of residents, yet no environmental impact study was carried out,” says Coulier. “There has been a wall of silence about the invisible effects, which could be much more harmful than the noise.”
Although noise, safety and security implications were looked at, Valentiny acknowledges that the effects of gas emissions were not studied. “We decided to reduce the number of people affected by noise pollution,” she explains. “Now you have a better situation for 95% of the people.”
Life for the less fortunate five percent may soon improve. Late last week, Durant conceded that “there is a problem” that merits further investigation. The Brussels regional government has also hinted that it may be willing to discuss harmonising sound pollution standards, which by implication would involve it allowing more flights to cross its skies.
This article appeared in the 23 January 2003 issue of The Bulletin