Protests at Germany's Largest Airport New Runway Noise Enrages Frankfurt Residents

Lawmakers in the German state of Hesse apparently underestimated the noise pollution that would come from a new runway they advocated at the Frankfurt Airport. Residents feel they were deceived, and a protest movement is swelling. But there may be no solution. In fact, the noise is likely to increase.  

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The protesters are starting to feel their own power, a little more every Monday when they meet to demonstrate. The participating citizens' initiatives say "at least 5,000 people" were at Frankfurt Airport's Terminal 1 last week; the police put their own more conservative estimate at 3,000.

There are a striking number of gray heads among the demonstrators, but also families with children, occupants of row houses and of pricey mansions. They have been demonstrating ever since the new northwestern landing strip opened at the Frankfurt Airport in late October, marching angrily through the terminal building with drums and whistles, holding up signs that display a variety of place names from throughout the surrounding Rhine-Main region, which is named after the area's two famous rivers.

Their weekly demonstrations are having an effect, too. Last Monday evening, as the protesters gathered beneath the large black flight information board to take up a version of "Silent Night" with lyrics expressing themes of noise, smells and enraged citizens, Volker Bouffier, governor of the federal state of Hesse, was in the nearby state capital Wiesbaden doing damage control. Bouffier, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was at the state chancellery to meet with the head of Fraport, the company which operates Frankfurt Airport, as well as representatives from airlines and air traffic control, in a desperate search for ways to keep the skies above the Rhine-Main even just a bit quieter.

The meeting, announced by Bouffier just three days beforehand, served as a tacit admission of serious negligence. With its focus on creating growth and jobs, the state government had for years underestimated just how extensively noise from the airport expansion would impact local residents, only to discover to its shock that it may have sentenced its own voters to a life smothered in aircraft noise.

Growing Anger

Bouffier's government is watching with horror as the level of rage grows among its own voters from week to week -- in the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt, for example, or in the tree-lined district of Lerchesberg, where airplanes now skim just a few hundred meters overhead, often only a few minutes apart.

Upscale Lerchesberg, located on the southern outskirts of the city, borders directly on woodland. Doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers and famous athletes all have their homes here. One local resident, a PhD-holding professional, recently told a Frankfurt daily that he would even be willing to rent his villa's attic apartment to al-Qaida terrorists, if they would just turn their attention to the airplanes thundering overhead. One mother wrote a heartbreaking letter to the editor about her two-year-old son, who now wakes up at 5 a.m. from the noise of the jets flying over their roof, crying, "Mama, it's too loud!" Schoolchildren went on the radio to describe how lessons have to be interrupted every few minutes as airplane noise fills their classrooms even with the windows closed.

Many of the protesters say they could never have imagined it would be this loud. And many members of the government in Wiesbaden likewise seem only now to be realizing that schools, preschools, nursing homes and doctors' offices all lie within the new approach path to Germany's busiest international airport.

Surprised By Both Noise and Reactions

Fear that this unexpected wave of outrage might even exceed the level of protest directed at Stuttgart 21, a controversial infrastructure project in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg, is putting regional politicians on the defensive. Hesse's Economy Minister Dieter Posch of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), for example, until now one of the strongest proponents of the airport expansion, said notably: "The level of additional noise, as well as the people's reactions, surprised us in their intensity."

That's an admission that could have far-reaching consequences, since Posch is head of the government body that was responsible for approving the expansion project, and for estimating the noise impact correctly and lawfully. If the regulatory authority itself underestimated the noise level, then the question is now whether construction of the landing strip in its current form should have been allowed at all.

Many local residents feel in any case that their political representatives deceived them. Bouffier's predecessor, Roland Koch, also a member of the CDU, pushed mightily for the project during the last decade with a "guarantee" that the controversial expansion would be tied to an "absolute nighttime flight ban" from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. for the entire airport. "No new landing strip without a nighttime flight ban," Koch, now head of the construction company Bilfinger Berger, spent years promising whenever the slightest opportunity presented itself.

Support Crumbles

But just before the construction permit came through, then-governor Koch changed course. The nighttime flight ban could not be legally enforced, he announced. Yet instead of accepting the consequences as promised and calling off construction of the landing strip, Koch made vague statements about "exceptions to the nighttime flight ban."

Those exceptions, made mainly at the urging of Lufthansa, the country's flag carrier and one of the airport's most powerful customers, were later ruled unacceptable by Hesse's highest administrative court, whose judges insisted on a complete flight ban at night. But instead of accepting the ruling in favor of the area's residents, Hesse's economy ministry appealed the decision, which will be heard by Germany's Federal Administrative Court in March. The official rationale from Bouffier's government says this is simply a matter of "legal certainty."

In the face of their citizens' outrage, though, even the front of Fraport supporters within Wiesbaden's governmental coalition is crumbling. The first to leave the fold, at least temporarily, was Bouffier's interior minister, Boris Rhein. The 39-year-old CDU politician, never noticeably concerned by the flight noise issue, is running for mayor of Frankfurt in March. It seems he saw his chances of success shrinking within the affected city districts, and last Monday Rhein suddenly came down on the side of the residents, calling for a nighttime flight ban "without ifs, ands or buts," as well as further limitations on usage of the landing strip during the hours of 10 to 11 p.m. and 5 to 6 a.m.

Noise Reduction Unlikely

CDU members report that Rhein received "a huge amount of flak" at the next meeting of the party's state parliament group for his tacit challenge to Bouffier. The mayoral candidate's noise-fighting proposals, which the Green Party then seized the chance to put to a vote in the state parliament, were resoundingly rejected by Rhein's fellow CDU members. Outmaneuvered, the interior minister kept his silence from then on.

But peace has by no means returned to the state's CDU-FDP coalition. The next to break ranks was the FDP's leader within the state parliament, Florian Rentsch. If he has his way, Rentsch said, there will soon be "zero nighttime flights."

The government of Hesse is now under considerable pressure to find alternatives that would limit the burden on local residents, but Governor Bouffier came away sobered from his crisis meeting with flight experts. The assembled experts and stakeholders had made it clear, he said, that it would not be possible to implement his promise to achieve a "significant noise reduction" for those in the immediate vicinity of the airport through technical means in the foreseeable future.

Airport operator Fraport, in which the state of Hesse and the city of Frankfurt hold a majority share, wants to use the new runway to increase the number of takeoffs and landings from just under 90 to over 120 per hour, which in turn means a considerable increase in noise. Bouffier's proposal to mitigate the noise to some degree by funding the installation of thicker window glass in nearby houses is not exactly taking his voter base by storm. Well-insulated walls and modern triple-glazed windows are already standard in most homes in the prosperous districts of southern Frankfurt, yet the menacing drone of the jets still finds its way inside.

Residents Consider Moving Out

One example that demonstrates the coalition's helplessness in the face of increasing protest is the proposal to increase the angle of approach for the new landing strip from 3 to 3.2 percent. This would allow the jets to approach at a slightly higher elevation, but specialists in the field believe a difference of 40 to 50 meters (130 to 165 feet) in flight elevation would hardly be noticeable to those living near the airport. At the same time, air traffic experts warn, it might well bring grief to even more residents, since increased height of the source unfortunately also increases the area affected by the noise.

The whole matter has started raising fundamental questions. "How is it possible that a runway like this one, bordered on both sides by residential neighborhoods, is even being built at all?" wonders Jochen Krauss, a 53-year-old trauma surgeon who lives in the Niederrad district of Frankfurt. The effect is worse than that of a highway built directly through an existing residential area without concrete noise barriers along it, he says. "Aircraft noise triggers people's instinct for flight," he adds, and those who live under such conditions in the long term will "definitely suffer damage to their health."

Residents of Niederrad are plagued by noise not only from the new approach route, but also from an existing takeoff path that passes directly over Niederrad and will remain unchanged despite the additional impact of the new route. The result is that residents live with constant flight noise, no matter which way the wind is blowing, 365 days a year, often at over 80 decibels for each flight that passes overhead. "Really, the only thing left to do is to move away," Krauss says.

Still, local politicians believe strict usage restrictions on the new runway could at least reduce the noise. They have united across party lines to approach the state government in Wiesbaden with their proposals for extensive adjustments to the plan: significantly expanded quiet hours and limiting use of the new runway to lighter, quieter short-haul and medium-haul planes.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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