Thursday, June 21, 2012

Belfast City Airport keen to replace a planning constraint on demolished Portakabins with noise contour and cap

That’s George Best Belfast City Airport’s commercial and marketing director Katy Best standing on the ground that used to be occupied by the Harbour Airport’s old Portakabin terminal building. It was vacated in 2001 and subsequently demolished.

Local airports have been in the news a lot recently, with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiring into an air transport strategy and strong rumours that Aer Lingus will soon formally announce its intention to shift from Belfast International into the City. (If it does, the limited length of the runway at Belfast City Airport may force some changes in Aer Lingus routes, ruling out current destinations like Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Tenerife which would require more fuel than the planes could hold and still manage to take off on a short runway.)

The DOE launched a public consultation into proposed amendments to the Belfast City Airport’s planning agreement in April and the consultation closed on 8 June has been extended until 30 June (for at least one respondent). The key change proposed by the airport is dropping its current 2 million seats for sale limit (ie, number of people departing from the airport) and instead introducing a noise control cap that would be enforceable by the DOE.

In the audio clip above, Katy Best outlines Belfast City Airport’s proposals to amend their planning agreement.

The current 2 million seats for sale limit was a planning condition attached to the old terminal building that is no longer standing. The airport state that this condition was due to the physical capacity of the terminal building, rather than the aimed at controlling flights. North Down Council agree with the airport’s interpretation:
They understand that they were established to prevent crowding in the old terminal buildings. Belfast City is the only airport in the UK with such a restriction. Even London City airport (the only other designated ‘City’ airport in the UK) does not have a seats for sale restriction.
The airport does seem to have a point that a planning condition attached to a long-demolished building is no way to control the expansion – and the community impact of that potential expansion – of an airport.

The proposed noise contour and cap would directly address the issue of noise using a recognised measure applied at other UK airports, along with existing restrictions on aircraft types, operating hours (with airline fines for permitted breaches going into the airport's community fund) and the bias towards takeoffs and landings over Belfast Lough (around 55%).

Katy Best points out that the uniqueness of Belfast City Airport is its proximity (3km) to the city centre, rather than its proximity to houses. Most airports sit alongside houses and have flight paths that go over similar areas of population.

Campaign group Belfast City Airport Watch quotes figures from the airport’s consultants which explain that

… 6,195 people now suffer from a level of aircraft noise deemed by the UK government to cause “significant community annoyance” – compared to 3,522 in 2007.
On the other hand, only 41 noise complaints were lodged with the airport during 2011 (a significant decrease on 135 in 2010) and while many schools sit under the flight path, none have complained. Over a thousand individuals have submitted responses to the consultation (often signing pre-printed letter templates). [Originally I posted that a hundred individuals had replied - my mistake, it was one hundred pages of responses.]

There is no proposal to change the existing 48,000 annual flight limit. Having operated 41,941 flights in 2011 and with 40% of the airport’s business disappearing with the loss of bmibaby, it could be some time before the economy and the local demand for flights recovers to push towards either the 2 million seats for sale or 48,000 flight limit.

The airport reckons that given that 50% of its passengers are tourists. The indirect economic benefit to the local tourism industry on top of direct employment at the airport due to expansion could amount to between 320 and 350 full time equivalent jobs, and between £20.9m and £22.5m economic growth (varying between low and high growth scenarios in its Economic Impact report).

The Environment Minister Alex Attwood has promised a decision by the end of the year. However it is quite foreseeable that the City Airport’s main competitor Belfast International Airport would (again) apply for a judicial review if the seats for sale restriction is removed. (I could speculate that their motivation would be a commercial desire to limit the ambitions of its short haul neighbour rather than out of any desire to reduce noise in East Belfast, South Belfast and North Down!)

It will be interesting to see how the DOE and its minister balance community (noise, jobs) with economics (flights, passengers, tourists, jobs) and justify their decision.

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