Lelystad Airport: will it go through or not? And when?

Edition 26 January 2018, by Hendrik Ike

Any traveller who has recently flown from Amsterdam Schiphol cannot fail to make two clear observations; there are too many people, and too many flights. Delays are commonplace, both by the gates and sitting within the aircraft waiting for taxiing clearance. Schiphol is the third busiest airport in Europe in terms of passenger numbers.

With the Netherlands serving as one of the chief international flight hubs in Europe, the facilities at Schiphol are close to reaching maximum capacity. The amount of flight movements per year has been capped at 500 000, and by the end of October last year the number had already reached 422,285 flights, – four percent more than in the same period in the previous year. The final count for 2017 was 496,747. This limit will be in-force until 2020. So whilst the airport may not be technically overbooked, it is certainly feeling that way for both passengers and the airport authorities. In order to relieve the pressure off Schiphol, increasing the capacity of other airports in the Netherlands to lighten the burden seems like a straightforward solution. If only.

Lelystad airport began its complicated life in 1971, when a small number of aircraft started using a small grass field to the south of the city for mostly recreational or private purposes. In 1973 the field was granted ‘airport’ status, and the troubles began. It was discovered that the terrain was not suitable and the grass frequently degraded into clay and mud in poor weather. These conditions forced the airport to repeatedly close. The taxiways were hardened in 1978 and the runway in 1981. Ten years later the length of runway was increased to 1,250 meters in an attempt to attract more serious airlines. The evolution of Lelystad airport has therefore been staggered yet steady, and at the end of last year the Dutch government stated that it intended to push ahead with plans to open the airport to commercial traffic from April 2019 onwards. Arguments surrounding the suitability of the airport for expansion are entrenched, and have been some time.

First and foremost are the complaints of local residents who oppose the predicted environmental impacts of the expansion. The central tenant of these complaints is noise pollution, and one which will not disappear considering that a study commissioned last year miscalculated the noise that people will be subjected to from aircraft nuisance (for the worse). Revised numbers are set to be presented next month, but many have argued that the damage has already been done. Eppo Bruins, a ChristenUnie MP, stated that evidently trust in the government was now ‘zero’ and that “I cannot see how the information will be able to convince me that a delay can be prevented.” Considering that ChristenUnie is a minor Coalition partner of the Rutte government, this sticking point is causing considerable consternation in ministerial departments. However, Transport Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen remains unperturbed. “The opening on 1 April 2019 remains the target”, Nieuwenhuizen stated during a parliamentary debate on Tuesday 19th December last year.

Opposition parties within the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch Parliament, are using the potential opening date, and its postponement, as a political bargaining chip. Citing that the reorganisation of Dutch airspace should be the first priority before expanding Lelystad, the continual shifting of the opening date has logistical consequences. Opening the airport in the winter is not a viable option, and so the window has become narrower, a reality observed both by authorities and campaigners alike. “You can’t just move it on a month, you work in half years”, said Nieuwenhuizen, “That is the underlying reason that we put maximum effort into achieving the planned date.” This also explains why the government is reluctant to commission a report that reorgan- ises airspace, due to the considerable amount of time it would take to compile. When asked to reflect on the mistakes made within the noise pollution study, she stated that they made her “extremely uncomfortable” but did not make further comments. GroenLinks and the SP have already advocated for the commission of a fresh noise pollution study, but this call has not yet been heeded by the current government.

Other parties within the government coalition are also constrained by their local representation. The CDA has a faction of members from the area who vigorously expose the expansion, claiming that the low-level flights into and out of the airport will cause considerable discomfort to local residents in the Gelderland area. On the 11th of January, the council of Zwolle also came out to oppose the plans, with the city fearing low-level flights. In an effort to placate these concerns, Nieuwenhuizen has issued the need for greater communication surrounding the expansion of the airport to all concerned parties during every step of the process. “That led to unrest and worries. We have to do it differently.”, she said last year.

It is worth recognising that the amount of planned flights to be processed by Lelystad airport is a fraction of that compared to Schiphol, at 25 000. Lelystad is also not alone in being the only airport that travellers to and from the Netherlands can potentially turn to, with Eindhoven and Rotterdam The Hague also operating international flights. Not surprisingly, these two airports also saw increased activity in 2017, where passenger numbers rose to 5.7 million (up 19.4%) for Eindhoven and 1.7 million (5,3%) in Rotterdam The Hague respectively. So, whilst the pressure for flights being taken away from Schiphol is the most pressing issue, the expansion of Lelystad can also be seen as a more generic consequence of the Netherlands becoming a more popular holiday and business destination in general. Beyond this, the Dutch government is facing pressure from airline businesses and authorities to give the green light in the near future. It is highly probable that Lelystad airport will open, but on which date and in what capacity is still a question up in the air.