Accommodating the future growth of the air transport industry at Lelystad Airport is a non-starter
In The Netherlands, we should cease the national discussion about Lelystad Airport (LEY) immediately.
Yesterday, the ‘Commission on assessing the environmental effects of further growth of aircraft movements at LEY’ (“Commissie MER”) released its long-awaited report. Its recommendations boil down to allowing the air transport industry to grow at LEY from 2020 onwards - already delayed by two years -, with the caveat that for growth beyond 2023 a new assessment might have to be carried out.
Unfortunately, the report has caused a new wave of uproar between the government, the air transport sector and part of civil society. The history of antagonism has resurfaced. Whether or not the commission did a good job is totally beside the point. It shouldn’t have been involved at all. The societal upheaval about the potential noise nuisance following industry growth at LEY largely outweighs the economic benefits. Who is to blame for the current situation of frustration, annoyance and mistrust is hardly relevant either. Key is how to deal with it in an effective and satisfactory manner.
Don’t get me wrong. LEY is a great airfield. I should know, I got my private pilot license there two decades ago. However, simply enhancing growth at LEY as a spill-over for linear growth at Schiphol Airport was a bad and misconceived idea in the first place. Let alone the significant legal and slots issues that would have to be resolved as well. Hence, the plan should be abandoned, sooner rather than later.
Although Schiphol Airport has a complex runway configuration, the infrastructure itself could allow for at least 750000 annual aircraft movements. The cap of 500000 movements per year is a political compromise between the national and regional governments, the air transport industry, air traffic control and civilians living in the vicinity of the airport. Its aim is to limit noise and safety risks around the airport.
Therefore, allowing growth at LEY from 12000 annual movements to 45000 movements in the coming years would be ridiculous. As we say in Holland: merely a drop on a sizzling plate (”een druppel op een gloeiende plaat”). 45000 annual movements are less than 10% of Schiphol’s current – limited - capacity. Although somewhat attractive for a few years ahead, it is hardly a sustainable solution for the mid- to long term future. Also, societal outrage will linger on.
The answers to the stalemate are about substituting unlimited linear future growth for smart and creative growth at Schiphol Airport. Sustainable growth, circular economy and purpose driven aviation are essential components for a future ‘license to exist’ for the air transport sector. Alternative fuels, technical developments with respect to engine, fuselage & avionics, new procedures for departure and arrival, lighter components, less noise and a reduction of carbon emissions will have to be the answers to an increasing market demand. Furthermore, although controversial due to challenges of cost, investment, corrosion, sea-environment and lead-time, the option of facilitating (part of) the future growth of Schiphol on an artificial island in the sea needs to be revisited.
The Dutch air transport industry has an excellent reputation when it comes to being creative, pro-active and resourceful. The current situation provides a great opportunity to start defining and driving how it wishes to capitalise on its own future.