September 2023

The Five Minute Feature

Case analysis: Capacity reduction at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

In this month’s Five Minute Feature, ACI EUROPE’s very own General Counsel and ex-Schiphol lawyer, Bastiaan de Bruijne reflects on the unprecedented decision by the Dutch Government to reduce capacity at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol – a case that raises questions beyond the local context. Let’s take stock of what happened so far and draw potential scenarios for the future.

On the 1st of September 2023, the Dutch caretaker Government announced it would continue pursuing a capacity reduction at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol from 500,000 to 452,500 aircraft movements following a Balanced Approach procedure – despite fierce political and legal debate. The decision to reduce airport capacity is unprecedented, and raises complicated issues as airlines will be forced to return slots to which they have acquired historic rights. A closer look at the situation in Amsterdam reveals a myriad of specific local circumstances.

What makes the situation in Amsterdam unique?

Schiphol airport is the oldest airport in the world still operating in its original location since 1916, in the middle of one of the world’s most densely populated areas.

Nowadays, Schiphol is one of Europe’s busiest hub airports welcoming 52.5 million passengers in 2022 (still short of almost 72 million passengers in 2019). It now ranks second in the European region for direct connectivity, after losing its position to Istanbul (seeACI EUROPE Connectivity Report 2023). The plans of the Dutch Government to reduce capacity at Schiphol will inevitably affect its connectivity rankings.

It is the first time a Government actively pursues the wholesale reduction of an airport’s capacity. The fact that Schiphol is congested, with no more slots available, means airlines will need to give up some of their slots despite holding historic rights – something which is not foreseen by the EU Slot Regulation.

What are the plans of the Dutch Government?

The Dutch Government first launched its plan to reduce the capacity of the airport in June 2022. This was motivated by the need to mitigate noise problems and environmental permit issues. This would better protect local residents and raise the environmental bar for the airport.

The Government envisaged a phased plan, starting with a temporary reduction to 460,000 aircraft movements pending a so-called Balanced Approach procedure to arrive at 440,000 aircraft movements by Winter 2024. In the meantime, the Government would work on new environmental limits to define boundaries for future growth.

In March 2023, the Dutch Government launched an international stakeholder consultation on the EU Balanced Approach procedure for Schiphol. It declared a target to reduce noise by 20%. The outcome of this process should make clear whether the ambition to reduce capacity at Schiphol from 550,000 to 440,000 aircraft movements can be justified – or whether more cost effective alternative measures can be implemented to reach the same noise targets.

The consultation process ended in June 2023 – resulting in 173 responses from local residents, Royal Schiphol Group, the main carrier KLM and international stakeholders (including ACI EUROPE).

On 1 September 2023, the Dutch caretaker Government (following its resignation in July) decided to pursue a reduction to 452.500 movements – instead of the initially planned reduction to 440,000 movements foreseen in June 2022.

There would still be a first, temporary reduction to 460,000 aircraft movements – despite the legal challenges brought by airlines who argued such decision cannot be taken without following the Balanced Approach procedure. After the airlines initially won this case, a higher Dutch court overturned that ruling in favour of the Government – resulting in the airlines’ appeal now pending before the Supreme Court which may even refer questions to the European Court of Justice.

In addition to the reduced number of aircraft movements, the Government presented other measures – including a reduced use of runways close to densely populated areas, fewer night flights and quieter flights during the night period. It is important to note that these measures would only reduce noise by some 15%, and more measures are needed to achieve the 20% target.

What was the response from Schiphol?

Royal Schiphol Group, the operator of the airport, announced an 8-point plan in April 2023 entitled “Quieter, Cleaner & Better”. The package would, among other things, achieve a structural reduction of noise. The proposed alternative measures included an extended night time closure, a stricter approach to noisier aircraft and a ban on private jets. These proposals were complemented by other measures to improve conditions for local residents and airport employees.

This plan was included in Royal Schiphol Group’s response to the Balanced Approach consultation. The thrust of the action plan is to avoid a reduction of aircraft movements through more cost effective measures, while still achieving a structural noise reduction as per the Government’s objectives.

Despite the fact that the Government did not include the suggestions to ban night flights and business jets in its decision, instead conducting a further assessment on the ban of night flights, Royal Schiphol Group was positive about the decision and the legal certainty and clarity for residents it provided. Nonetheless, the airport will continue to advocate for a new system with clear noise and environmental limits, on the basis that aviation will become cleaner and quieter in the years ahead.

ACI EUROPE response

ACI EUROPE submitted its views to the Dutch Government based on contributions from member airports across Europe, highlighting our commitment to sustainable development – emphasising the Balanced Approach principles, specifically that operating restrictions and airport capacity reductions shall not be applied as a first resort, but only after consideration of all other measures and in the most cost efficient manner. The response called upon the Dutch Government to duly respect the principles of the Balanced Approach and implement them in the right order.

Moreover, we have pointed to the impact on competition and connectivity at other European airports – as a result of reduced air connectivity to the Netherlands and worldwide via Schiphol’s function as a major hub. This would especially be the case for smaller and regional airports, serving communities who rely on Schiphol and other hubs for their connectivity.

Following the Government’s decision on 1 September, we expressed disappointment that the Government had not taken into account the alternative measures proposed by Schiphol. Moreover, while the decision to temporarily reduce capacity as of Summer 2024 will provide much-needed legal certainty, we raised concerns about the EU Balanced Approach principles.

So what is next?

The Dutch Government has notified its decision to the European Commission, which will have 3 months to review it. In case the European Commission has doubts about the procedure followed, it may inform the Government which will then need to respond to these doubts. Only then may the Dutch Government take a final decision.

The final decision would need to be implemented by March 2024, in order to take effect before the capacity declaration for the Winter Season by the end of that year.

Just as this article was going to press at the end of September 2023, the Dutch Government granted Schiphol a long awaited Nature Permit – based on 440,000 aircraft movements per year but with a temporary derogation for up to 500,000 aircraft movements, until a decision is taken on a final number.

Bastiaan de Bruijne is General Counsel at ACI EUROPE. He provides legal expertise across the full spectrum of European aviation law and regulation, and represents the airport industry in all EU-led aviation negotiations with non-EU countries.

He joined ACI EUROPE from Royal Schiphol Group, where he was competition and regulation counsel.