Fighter jet noise gets Swiss up in arms

The military already share space with business flights at the Payerne base Keystone

Locals living near three Swiss air force bases are battling government plans to increase the number of flights at the airfields, especially those of fighter jets.

This content was published on May 8, 2007 minutes

Defence Minister Samuel Schmid refuses to back down, but opponents warn they will use every legal avenue at their disposal, even if it means hurting civilian projects and operations.

Schmid has said in the past that by concentrating flights at Payerne, Sion and Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland, the air force will be able to work more efficiently.

The defence minister restated his position on Monday in Estavayer-le-Lac near Payerne, where locals have been told the armed forces plan to have nearly 14,000 jet rotations by 2010 - 2,000 more than in 2005.

While Schmid said he is prepared to talk, he refuses to reallocate flights and their noise to other airfields.

The government is expected to approve the flight numbers in November, a decision that cannot be appealed.

In Sion, the airfield sits in the valley beneath the mountains, but also close to town. Locals there are concerned with plans to increase the number of military flights from 4,400 to 5,000, including trebling the number of those by noisy FA-18 fighter jets to 2,000.

One association has already suggested banning military flights altogether in Sion.

Around Meiringen, the community, which much of its revenue from tourism, has also had to come to terms with plans for more training and surveillance missions leaving from the base.

Losing battle?

For those opposed to more military flights, it seems they are fighting a losing battle against the armed forces and bigger economic interests.

Schmid has not spoken to the most virulent opposition groups about the plans, preferring to concentrate on the cantonal governments and local associations.

Cantons Vaud and Valais have not countered the armed forces' project because the airfields are shared between the military and civilian flights. Sion gets heavy use in winter when skiers from abroad are flown in and out, while Payerne is hoping to expand civilian operations.

A new runway could be built there and there is already one aircraft maintenance company that wants to set up shop. Solar Impulse, Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard's latest project, which aims to build the first sun-powered aircraft to fly around the world, could also become a fixture in Payerne.

But local opponents might be able to bring these plans to a screeching halt. Any civilian construction has to go through an approval process.

"We won't give our approval to civilian plans until the military do a deal with us," said Denis Chassot, head of an association defending local communes' interests.

The threat is not an idle one. If the civilian projects are put on hold, their promoters could go look elsewhere.

"Payerne is the best and only place for us in Switzerland," André Borschberg, CEO of Solar Impulse, told swissinfo. "But if our project is delayed because of negotiations, we will have to find other solutions."

The civilian plans can be opposed all the way through to the Federal Court, potentially freezing projects for years.

Voters to decide

Swiss voters will also have a say on the issue of military flights. Environmentalist Franz Weber has collected enough signatures to force a nationwide vote on banning fighter jets from tourism zones.

Weber's foundation happens to own a hotel near Meiringen where guests apparently complain of the noise generated by the aircraft. Other hotel operators have also warned that visitors will stay away in droves if the air force jets prove to be too much of a nuisance.

The vote campaign promises to be a tough one for fighter opponents. One house of parliament has already rejected the idea, while cantonal governments say that economic interests are more important in this case than the impact of the extra noise on the population.


In brief

The Swiss air force plans to cut fighter flights in and out of the country's main airbases by 2010, slashing them from over 50,000 today to around 25,000.

Swiss fighter jets can only operate during the working week, from 8am until the end of the afternoon. Night flights can only take place once a week.

Supersonic flights are not allowed under 10,000 metres, and only 300 take place in Switzerland every year as many training flights now happen outside the country.

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