Home Society Brussels Airport late-night noise leaves residents hot and bothered
Brussels Airport late-night noise leaves residents hot and bothered

Brussels Airport late-night noise leaves residents hot and bothered

by host

BRUSSELS — The roar of a jet engine and a good night’s sleep aren’t really compatible — and that’s a problem for Brussels Zaventem Airport.

And because this is Belgium, the controversy over the airport’s late-night flights also involves clashing governments and regional tensions.

The Flemish regional government, which regulates the hub that lies near the Belgian capital, renewed the environmental permit for the airport in March. The new permit doesn’t include any restrictions on night flights during the week, and only gradually introduces a “quiet weekend nights” scheme.

That has local residents and some politicians up in arms. On Tuesday, Belgium’s Superior Health Council, an advisory body to the national government, backed a ban on night flights.

The hub counted more than 230,000 flight movements per year in 2019, before air traffic decreased due to Covid. Today, aircraft noise in the increasingly urbanized area has reportedly returned almost to pre-pandemic levels, making Zaventem’s noise case similar to that of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport — where the Dutch government is under pressure to cut the number of flights.

At Brussels Airport, 16,284 aircraft were using the airport between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. in 2023. Most are cargo flights, operated with older and noisier aircraft.

“In the area around Brussels Airport, some 160,000 people are at increased risk from exposure to excessive noise levels,” which can lead to “sleep disorders, learning difficulties, high blood pressure and depression,” the council said in its more than 100-page report.

Exposed residents experienced more than 10 noisy overflights per night in 2019. The data convinced the Health Council to recommend a total ban on landings and takeoffs between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. to “at least allow those living near the airport to benefit from 7 hours, ideally 8 hours, of sleep undisturbed by aircraft noise.”

The report also concludes that increasing aircraft movements “is not acceptable.”

The Flemish environmental approval does recognize the noise problem — it’s just not rushing to deal with it.

The quiet weekend night scheme would go into effect in the summer of 2025, when only low-noise planes would be allowed to land between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. from Saturday to Monday. But according to the health experts, “truly silent aircraft are not a realistic option in the near future.”

In addition, restrictions that end before 7 a.m. don’t help much because “sleep tends to be less deep in the early morning, flights occurring during that time of the day have a significant effect on the perception of sleep quality, as sleepers are more easily woken up,” the health experts said in the report.

Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, who called for the noise study in 2022, wants flights curtailed.

“There is no future for an airport in this densely populated region that only thrives on significant nighttime activity. So I am in favor of a gradual, realistic but systematic reduction of night flights, with flights with the noisiest aircraft being stopped first. At night you have to let people sleep,” he said this week.

But the health body’s calls for fewer flights clashes with the airport’s economic importance.

In reaction to the report, Zaventem airport said it had cut noise impact by 57 percent between 2000 and 2019, and would do more in the future.

“The study focuses only on health, but not on the social and economic importance of the airport. The night flights are already severely limited, but necessary,” it said in a statement to local media, adding: “We want to keep the night flights because they are necessary for cargo operations as well as the airport’s passenger network.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that Brussels Airport is the second-largest driver of growth in the national economy after the port of Antwerp, with 64,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“It’s 2 percent of our GDP. There are more than 350 companies connected to this site,” he said during a recent event at the hub.

The most vocal defenders of residents’ sleep are the Greens, with Brussels Regional Environment Minister Alain Maron recently announcing that he’ll take the Flemish government’s permit to court.

However, Maron won’t represent the entire Brussels regional government in the legal challenge, as the Liberals oppose the action. It’s “not in Brussels’ interest” as the airport is also “one of the biggest employers of low-skilled Brussels residents,” said Finance Minister Sven Gatz.

The report notes that the airport’s location, and the complicated nature of Belgian politics, makes resolving the problem difficult.

“Due to the specific location of Brussels Airport near the border of different regions and communities, adequate handling and burden-sharing of aircraft noise has been a complex political issue for decades,” it said.

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