The Belgian Federal Government is being charged millions of euros a year in air traffic fines – by its own regions and municipalities, according to reports by Belgian newspaper De Standaard. The penalties, totalling €25 million and counting, are due to noise pollution around Brussels Airport.
Five Flemish municipalities (Grimbergen, Machelen, Meise, Vilvoorde and Wemmel) have received €3.2 million, at a rate of €50,000 a week since May 2021, after a court upheld their complaints about aircraft noise.
Since 2019, Brussels Region has been handed €13 million, thanks to another legal case. And 313 residents to the east of Brussels have been given €9.5 million after a 2020 court ruling over the airport’s runway configuration and wind standards.
In a country known for its surrealism, the seemingly absurd situation where regions and municipalities can effectively sue their own government for such large sums is the result of local responsibilities clashing with central powers. Noise pollution is the remit of the country’s regions, but air traffic routing is a federal responsibility.
Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) described the “complex and sensitive dossier” as “a legacy from the past.” Decisions taken at federal level in the early 2000s are to blame for an increase in use of the shorter ‘runway 2’ and flights over very densely populated areas, at low altitudes, which create noise during landings.
The noisy flight paths have been found to contravene Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards the right to the protection of a healthy environment.
Research published recently in Environment International indicates that people living near airports may be slightly more susceptible to heart attacks and related issues, with men aged over 65 worst hit, especially by night flights. The Flemish Federation for a Better Environment (Bond Beter Leefmilieu) has estimated that as many as 220,000 people around the capital could be affected by the issue.
Meise’s mayor, Gerda Van den Brande (N-VA) agrees on the negative effects of noisy flight paths, saying “it disturbs sleep, even without you realizing it. That’s very bad for your health.”
She rejects the idea that complaints about the aircraft were all about the money: “We are certainly not aiming for that. We do want a fair distribution of noise pollution. It is already slightly better than a few years ago, but there are still a lot of them flying over our municipality.”
Gilkinet has expressed reluctance to change flight paths, saying it will not solve the problem but simply transfer it to other communities. Instead he says he aims to “soon be coming up with new proposals and a legal framework for more sleep for the local residents,” adding that “Brussels Airport should not become Europe’s noise garbage can.”
Recent proposals have already caused controversy. Whatever the new plan, it will need approval at federal level – a lengthy process.