The Third Runway: Toxic on Take-Off

While airport planners work to meet future demand, NGOs protest health and pollution costs

News | Matthias Wurz | October 2012

Vienna International Airport's new Skylink Terminal in 2012 (Photo: Vienna International Airport)

If Madeleine Petrovic has her way, there will be no third runway built at the Vienna International Airport (VIA).

"It's an ecological disaster and economic adventure with an uncertain outcome," said Petrovic, spokesperson of the Greens of Lower Austria, capturing the mood of the members of the Platform of Independent NGOs Against the Proposed Construction of a Third Runway with whom she had joined on the podium of the Presseclub Concordia on 17 September. The press conference had been called in response to Lower Austria’s decision to approve the construction of the new runway, following the outcome of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on 10 July.

Alongside the prominent politician – Petrovic had been Federal Green Party spokesperson from 1993 to 1995 – were eight experts representing the 27 NGOs of the group, including medical professionals, real estate and transportation specialists and lawyers, who had joined the battle against the estimated €2.5 billion project. Now that the legal challenges had been filed, the group were seeking public support for their cause.


Economic necessities…

Petrovic was particularly disturbed by what she saw as a conflict of interest for Lower Austria’s Provincial Governor Erwin Pröll.

"The provincial government is strongly biased because of its legal entanglements with the Airport," said Petrovic, pointing out that Lower Austria is one of the two largest shareholders of Vienna International Airport. The second one, the City of Vienna, has sided with the petitioners challenging the EIA outcome and demanding further noise control measures for the densely populated areas of Vienna’s southern districts, reflecting the strength of the Green Party’s voice in the city’s governing coalition.

Petrovic also accused Pröll of "recklessly pushing through the third runway, just to do the construction businesses a favour!"

For the Airport, the issue is about keeping pace with change. The current two-runway-system "won’t be able to meet the demands in international flight traffic," claims VIA management in the pamphlet Vienna’s Airport of the Future: The Third Runway, outlining plans to expand capacities by 25%, to allow passenger traffic to increase from the 22 million in 2011 to an estimated 30 million in 2020. However the pamphlet contains no economic analysis to support the projections.

At the same time, the Austrian Hotelier Association (Österreichische Hoteliervereinigung) representing some 1,200 hotels, has been increasing pressure on the government to support the airport expansion. The move is, in part, in response to a recent failed initiative to expand the already sprawling Munich Airport across the border in Bavaria, where citizens rejected a third runway in an 18 June referendum supported by 54% of the popular vote.

According to Michaela Reitterer of the Austrian Hotelier Association’s Vienna branch, this offers the Vienna International Airport a competitive advantage – though time is of the essence, she said, as "there are clear signals in Germany that the third runway in Munich is not entirely written off yet."


…versus concerns for public health 

Back at the press conference, the rather vague business arguments for a third runway left heads shaking among the NGOs.

"Decisions like that put people’s health at risk to little economic gain," said Jutta Leth, a psychiatrist at Otto Wagner hospital, who has also studied the toxicological effects of aircraft emission on human health.

Following the 90-minute press conference, discussion continued over sandwiches and homemade pastries at the coffeehouse-style buffet.

"In the end, the Austrian taxpayer has to foot the bill," Leth sighed in frustration, "not only for the billions in construction costs, but in rising medical expenses." These, if real, could present a significant challenge to the economic success story of Austria’s largest airport. The increase of passengers translates into a dramatic rise in total flights per years from the current 240,000 to 460,000 by 2030, burning some 330,000 tons of kerosene spreading carcinogenic fine dust particles – according to the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of May 2012 – over Vienna’s heavily populated southern districts and outskirts and thus affecting somewhat 500,000 people.

Environmental noise is also a factor, according to Anna Kreil, an internist with a degree in Public Health, who has made a meticulous review of studies of these effects.

"I was so amazed when the consultants of the EIA referred primarily to studies published before the year 2000," Kreil said, referencing the significant advances in research methods since them. She pointed to a 2011 WHO study, The Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise that found a long-term average of 42 decibels at night would pose a severe health risk. The third runway at the Vienna International Airport could reach a maximum noise level of 55 decibels, according to the EIA, significantly above the maximum level of 40 decibels set by the current WHO Night Noise Guidelines for Europe.

"Austrian society is still relatively unaware of these risks to public health," Kreil said, which she found ironic, as in Austria – as in most other EU countries – there is no taxation on kerosene. The result, she said, is an indirect subsidy:

"The aviation industry presents the taxpayer with a high bill in health costs."

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