Zurich Airport: Night traffic must be reviewed

The Federal Administrative Court largely upholds the appeal against the partial approval of the 2014 operating regulations of Zurich Airport. The noise exposure in the evening and nighttime hours was not properly mapped and must be determined anew.

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A safety and security audit of Zurich Airport was commissioned by the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) following a safety-related incident involving two aircraft cleared for simultaneous take-off on 15 March 2011. As a result, several measures designed to simplify the complex approach and take-off system were incorporated into the Airport’s 2014 operating regulations. The main subject of the 2014 operating regulations is the highly complex east route concept applicable during the noise-sensitive evening and nighttime hours. The east concept provides for aircraft to approach from the east and to take-off towards the north, thus separating the previously intersecting landing and take-off routes. The same take-off routes also apply in the southern approach concept. However, Germany still has not ratified the international agreement with Switzerland which would enable aircraft to fly over German territory in the evening, nighttime, and early mornings. In May 2017, Zurich Airport therefore decided to apply for a partial approval of the 2014 operating regulations. The purpose in a first stage was to implement the measures of the east concept which did not necessitate German consent.

Zurich Airport’s application
A key safety element in the Airport’s application is the lowering of the minimum flight altitude for runway 32 to enable heavy four-engine long-haul aircraft to take-off from that runway. Because such aircraft have a slow climb rate, it was proposed to lower the minimum flight altitude from 3’500 feet to 2’500 feet above sea level (FASL). For the time being, in the evening and at nighttime, four-engine long-haul aircraft can only take off from runway 34 which already has a lower minimum flight altitude of 2’500 FASL. To do so, however, they must intersect runway 28 twice – when taxiing from dock E and when maneuvering for take-off.

Zurich Airport also applied for an adjustment in the FL 80 Rule (FL = flight level). This rule provides that aircraft taking off after 10 pm must be guided along the flight path until they reach a given altitude (flight level 80). The Airport claims aircraft taking off have to fly a wide berth around the runway 28 approach sector to avoid any conflict between departing and landing aircraft. The requested adjustment would enable air traffic controllers to widen the flight corridor in the event of potential conflicts by permitting flights to deviate from the set path sooner after take-off (from flight level 50).

FOCA approval
On 14 May 2018, FOCA granted partial approval for the 2014 operating regulations. Moreover, it determined the admissible noise exposure based on the noise calculations computed by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (EMPA), and granted relief in accordance with the Noise Abatement Ordinance for the exceeding of impact thresholds and alarm values in newly affected areas. Numerous municipalities in the vicinity of the Airport, bordering counties in Germany, a German municipality and two associations against aircraft noise filed appeals with the Federal Administrative Court (FAC). The Court consolidated the proceedings and ruled on them in a single decision.

Noise exposure not correctly determined
The basis for the operating regulations and the approach and take-off routes is the Sectoral Aviation Infrastructure Plan (SAIP). After examining the Plan, the FAC established that the noise exposure between 10 pm and 11.30 pm had been incorrectly reported, or not reported at all, and that the delays situation was based on out-of-date assumptions concerning delayed flights. As a result, the areas affected by the noise had not been correctly mapped. The Court thus overrules the determination of the admissible noise exposures and the granted relief.

The planning authority will conduct a comprehensive review of the delays situation between 11 pm and 11.30 pm in particular and will have to re-determine the noise exposure. Consequently, the FAC limits the decrease of the minimum flight altitude for four-engine long-haul aircraft taking off from runway 32 until the detailed review of the actual noise exposure is completed. Furthermore, the Court cancels the adjustment of the FL 80 Rule on the same grounds. The Court refers several appeals seeking more extensive adjustments to arrival and take-off routes to FOCA as noise complaint cases to be dealt with in separate proceedings to be opened by FOCA or as part of the pending proceedings for the approval of the 2017 operating regulations. The FAC rejects any further demands.

This judgment may be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court.

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