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‘Get used to it’, environmental groups tell aviation industry fighting flight cuts at Schiphol

KLM aircraft on the tarmac at Schiphol airport near Amsterdam.
KLM aircraft on the tarmac at Schiphol airport near Amsterdam. Copyright REUTERS/Yves Herman
Copyright REUTERS/Yves Herman
By Lottie Limb
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Degrowth era? Campaigners tell airlines battling the Schiphol Airport flight cap to “stop fighting” and start shaping the future.

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The Dutch government is pressing ahead with a world-first plan to cap the number of flights at Schiphol Airport - despite kickback from the aviation industry.

From next year, it could see annual limits on how many planes can take off and land in an effort to cut noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The aviation industry is fiercely opposing the cap which will come into effect in 2024 pending European Commission approval.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called the move “irresponsible” and warned that “severe consequences” could follow for the Netherlands’ economy.

Environmental groups say airlines must accept that the era of “unbridled growth” has ended, stop fighting annual limits on flight numbers and “start shaping a future with fewer flights”.

Here’s what you need to know about the controversial flight cap - likely to be the first of many more aviation degrowth battles across Europe.

Why is the Dutch government capping flights at Schiphol Airport?

From winter 2024, Amsterdam’s airport will limit the number of flights to 452,500 per year, 9.5 per cent less than 2019 levels. Summer 2024 will see a ‘temporary’ capacity reduction to 460,000 flights before the cap is put in place.

"Aviation can bring the Netherlands a lot that's good, as long as we pay attention to the negative effects for people that live near the airport," Transport Minister Mark Harbers said in a statement announcing the cap last week.

The government's main reason for the cap is to address noise pollution, under its obligation to protect local citizens’ health and wellbeing. But it has also cited the need to reduce CO2 emissions and pollutants such as nitrogen oxide (NOx), as well as recurring logistical problems at the airport.

The proposed cap has had a turbulent passage through the courts so far. The Dutch court initially blocked it in April, but the government successfully appealed and saw the decision overturned in the Court of Appeal in July.

A coalition of airlines and industry associations has now appealed to the Supreme Court to try and change this decision.

How has the aviation industry reacted to the Dutch flight cap?

Airlines that use Schiphol, including Air France-KLM sued to try to prevent the cap at one of Europe's busiest airports. They say it will harm business and violate previous agreements.

KLM on Friday called the cap "incomprehensible" and said implementing it would damage the Netherlands’ economy.

IATA and ACI Europe are supporting the airlines’ case. They are emphasising that the Dutch government is currently in caretaker mode ahead of elections in mid-November.

“In a few months’ time, this government will not be accountable for the severe consequences that may follow from the Schiphol decision, particularly with respect to relations with the Netherlands’ trading partners, and lost jobs and prosperity at home,” a strongly worded statement from IATA reads.

Moving forward with flight cuts, “will demonstrate a contempt of the necessary democratic and legal scrutiny required of such a highly irregular and economically damaging proposal,” it adds.

“These decisions are about quick political wins ahead of national elections at the expense of the Dutch economy and jobs,” echoes Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe.

What do environmental groups say?

Environmental NGOs, on the other hand, are clear that this is a necessary win for the climate - and see the industry pushback as a form of denial.

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“I think the industry still has to get used to the fact that the era of unbridled growth for the aviation industry has ended,” Ton Sledsens, a senior policy officer for climate justice and mobility at Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) tells Euronews Green.

I think the industry still has to get used to the fact that the era of unbridled growth for the aviation industry has ended.

"It is historic that the Dutch government decided to reduce the number of flights at Schiphol Airport. This is a u-turn: the time of more and more flights is over,” says Maarten de Zeeuw, aviation expert at Greenpeace Netherlands.

“The aviation industry and IATA need to face this new reality. To prevent the worst climate breakdown, it is urgently needed to degrow aviation. There is no other way to reduce the CO2 emissions from flying in line with limiting the climate crisis to below 1.5 degrees.”

Aviation accounts for 2.1 per cent of global CO2 emissions - which researchers have warned could be just the “tip of the iceberg” so far as its wider climate impact goes. The industry has to find a way to adhere to the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5C, and its proposed technical solutions just aren’t cutting it, campaigners say.

“If they don't reduce the emissions, then other sectors or citizens will have to reduce more. I have never heard the aviation industry explain which sector that should be,” says Sledsens.

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He accuses the industry of “creating a deliberate fallacy” in focusing on the Dutch government’s transitional status. 

"They are trying to divert the discussion to a non-relevant area,” he says, since the government is still bound to continue with business as usual.

Sledsens also contests IATA’s claim that “no mechanism, domestic or international, exists for agreeing such cuts.” He points out that the government is obliged to ensure that the legal rights of citizens are upheld and therefore that adequate environmental limits are placed on the airport.

The airport, in turn, is obliged to stick to these limits and take them into account when making its capacity declaration - aka the number of flights it can handle. All airports have independent slot coordinators who are tasked with distributing the slots in a fair way.

Will curbing flight numbers really impact jobs?

"The industry's reaction is ironic when we think about the impact that not cutting flights will have, through intensifying climate breakdown,” says Inês Teles from Stay Grounded.

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"The truth is that the climate crisis is here and the aviation sector will change, either by design or by disaster. We must choose design, by quickly reducing flights through fair measures such as caps and taxes, and investing in green mobility, which will greatly increase job opportunities."

The aviation sector will change, either by design or by disaster.

A recent report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) challenges the idea that increasing air traffic brings economic prosperity.

It found that, despite booming air travel in the UK over the past few decades, only one in 12 flights in 2022 were taken for business. The number of jobs associated with the industry was lower than in 2007. Wages fell faster in real terms between 2008 and 2022 than in any other UK sector.

Meanwhile, research from climate action charity Possible suggests that cuts to aviation can more than compensate for job losses in the aviation sector.

With aviation degrowth, new roles could be created in rail, renewables and domestic tourism to accommodate a shifting travel environment.

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“Dutch aviation remains extremely large and still causes far too much nuisance, CO2 emissions and air pollution, so we will keep pushing for a safe future,” adds de Zeeuw.

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