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20 February 2008
The longstanding noise dispute at Brussels Airport reached another milestone with the Supreme Court's ruling on January 3 2008.
Belgium's intricate legal landscape makes the dispute particularly complicated. Belgium is a federal country divided into three regions: the Dutch-speaking Flemish region, the French-speaking Walloon region and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region. The federal government and the regions can all enact aircraft noise regulations and all have done so in different ways.
The main issues arise at Brussels-National Airport. The airport is a federal entity in the Flemish region, but is only a few miles from the Brussels-Capital region. Thus, most air traffic must overfly both regions on take-off and landing. In 1999 the Brussels-Capital Region enacted stringent noise standards and imposed fines on airlines that failed to comply. In the meantime, the federal government tested various policies in an attempt to manage the conflicting interests of the inhabitants of the different regions. One controversial policy involved spreading the flightpaths on the approach to the airport so that the inhabitants of the area close to the airport would be affected by fewer flights, whereas some areas of Brussels would be overflown more frequently.
Acting on a request filed by inhabitants of the northern and eastern areas of Brussels (ie, those nearest to the airport), the Brussels Court of Appeals ruled on March 21 2006 that the federal authorities should spread the flightpaths over Brussels “fairly”. The court also set requirements to ensure such dispersion and the federal government subsequently adopted a dispersion policy which provided for the controversial use of different runways at the airport.
However, this ruling was annulled by the Supreme Court on January 3 2008 on the grounds that the lower court had breached the principle of the separation of powers.
The advocate general stressed - and the court confirmed - that the dispersion policy falls within the competence of the executive. By contrast, the courts have only limited powers of review. Therefore, the Court of Appeals was deemed to have ruled beyond its competence.
Under Belgium's court system, the Supreme Court may rule only on matters of law, not matters of fact. Therefore, the case has been referred to Ghent Court of Appeals, which will decide the matter.
This sensitive issue remains high on the agenda of the transitional federal government and is likely to be one of the main topics under discussion when the next government is formed in March.
Meanwhile, an ancillary set of federal rules on aviation noise has been amended. A royal decree issued on December 7 2007 abrogates the former decree of April 14 2002, which prohibited certain flights between 11:00pm and 6:00am (and provided for certain exceptions on the basis of EU Regulation 925/1999).
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Pierre D Frühling