Frankfurt Airport serves Germany’s fifth-largest city. In the hierarchy of world air transport hubs, it’s in the upper reaches of the premier league, servicing up to 70 million passengers a year and maintaining a flow of freight which peaked at two million metric tonnes in 2015.
With stats like that, you’d expect the airport to be writing its own rules. Yet, since 2012, it has faced a total ban on night flights. How did this come about?
The ban required both a serious management blunder, and the involvement of an unusual organization.
The blunder occurred in 2011, when the airport changed its flightpaths, the invisible ‘tracks in the sky’ which guide planes through landing and takeoff. The airport claimed that the changes wouldn’t impact local residents… but the new routes brought planes winging over densely-populated areas at reduced altitude.
The resulting noise spikes had local residents up in arms, and their spontaneous demonstrations soon turned into a weekly fixture. Every Monday, thousands of citizens would descend on the airport and peacefully occupy entire buildings. (Our photo shows the turnout on a light week — some ‘Monday Demonstrations’ mobilized up to 20,000 Frankfurters!)
What kind of official response did all this civil unrest elicit? You can guess! Faced with a regular total shutdown of their airport, a city court passed an order which imposed a temporary ban on the offending night flights ‘pending investigation’.
But the real gamechanger was DFLD, a Frankfurt-based organization with expertise in monitoring aircraft noise. DFLD took careful note of the conditions of the temporary court ban and used them to review every single night flight into or out of the airport. Whenever a flight violated the ban, DFLD published its details on the Internet. Frankfurt citizens — including some ‘Monday Demonstrators’, but also other sections of the community — used these reports as ammunition. They invoked the stats to ask hard questions of their elected representatives and of the state’s Ministry of the Economy.
DFLD’s spokespeople have described the result as a foregone conclusion. With demands for action piling up, the organization began fielding queries from state and then national government. In 2012 a higher court in Leipzig upheld the 2011 ban and extended its terms, imposing a total block on all air traffic into and out of Frankfurt Airport between the hours of 2300 and 0500, and imposing restrictions on flights just outside those hours. Despite repeated legal challenges, the ban has remained in force for the better part of a decade.
Could it happen here? Airport objectors should remember the lesson of the ‘boiled frog’, the business cliché which holds that people won’t object to gradual change, no matter how disruptive. For decades, Bristol Airport’s management has been bringing about huge changes to life in the Chew Valley, but it hasn’t committed a Frankfurt-scale overnight blunder… yet.
Of course, if we really want to achieve a local ban, we’ll need a monitoring organization of our own. Imagine something like Community Speedwatch, equipped with decibel counters and rangefinders and active in the ‘flyover villages’.
Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d be interested in joining such a group.