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02 May 2012
On April 4 2012 the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig announced its long-awaited decision on the night curfew at Frankfurt International Airport. The ruling came as no surprise given the clear words of the presiding Judge Rüdiger Rubelcourt in the oral hearing held on March 14 and 15 2012.
The court mainly affirmed the first instance ruling, issued by the Administrative Court of the State of Hessen, by prohibiting exceptions to the night curfew during the core night hours of 11:00pm to 5:00am. The initial planning approval, which allowed for 17 flights during core night hours, will now be amended accordingly by the State of Hessen through a supplementary planning procedure. Shortly after publication of the court's decision, Dieter Posch, the minister of economic affairs of the State of Hessen, reiterated the government's willingness to implement a strict night curfew as demanded by the court.
For shoulder hours (10:00pm to 11:00pm and 5:00am to 6:00am), the court went beyond the findings of the first instance court and reduced the average number of flights from 150 to 133. Although the State of Hessen could increase this number again through a supplementary planning procedure, it is bound by the so-called 'principle of proportionality'. According to this principle, shoulder hours can be used only to handle reduced traffic volumes and cannot serve as an extension of regular daytime operations (ie, capacity peaks must be avoided).
On the other hand, the expansion of Frankfurt International Airport was not called into question and the court confirmed the overall planning approval for a fourth runway.
Aircraft noise has become a politically charged issue in Germany and was the decisive factor in the recent Frankfurt mayoral elections. Boris Rhein, minister of interior affairs of the State of Hessen and member of the Christian Democratic Union, was considered the top candidate. However, in a surprise result in the run-off elections held on March 25 2012, Peter Feldmann – the relatively unknown Social Democratic Party candidate – defeated his rival by a 15-point margin. Feldmann won many votes from people angered by aircraft noise – he not only supported a strict night curfew, but also lobbied for the extension of the flight ban from 10:00pm to 6:00am.
In 2000 the State of Hessen had initially agreed to a night curfew from 11:00pm to 5:00am in return for a fourth runway at Frankfurt airport. However, during the planning approval process, the requested ban on night flights was lifted as Frankfurt International Airport – the second busiest in Europe by cargo traffic – is dependent on night operations, especially for time-sensitive goods. Although Volker Bouffier, the prime minister of the State of Hessen, and Rhein subsequently changed their position and expressed support for the night curfew, this political turnaround was condemned by sceptical voters.
While the court's ruling ends the long-running conflict – at least for the time being – the economic consequences for Frankfurt and the Rhine-Main region could be severe. It is also troubling that competitive distortions among European airports have not been considered, as these could weaken Germany's economic position in the future. It appears that politicians, in order to safeguard their own interests, are willing to abandon objectivity for power in the face of forthcoming elections.
The ruling points the way for further planned airport expansions in Germany – only time will tell how, for example, Munich responds to the recent findings.
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