Swiss air traffic controllers are to open a controversial southern approach into Zurich airport from Thursday because of tough new flight restrictions imposed by Germany.
The measures follow Bern’s refusal in March to ratify an aviation accord with Berlin aimed at reducing noise pollution over southern Germany.
From Thursday, thousands of residents living in affluent areas south of the city will have to endure flights every three minutes between 6am and 7am during the week, and 6am and 9am at the weekend.
Switzerland’s air traffic control agency, Skyguide, has spent months testing the new flight path after Germany opted to take unilateral action in April this year.
Germany imposed restrictions on early morning, evening and overnight flights into Zurich from the north. The ban is now being widened.
During restricted periods, planes will have to approach Zurich – some 20 kilometres from the German border – from the south.
This week the Swiss transport ministry threw out appeals by opponents seeking to delay the introduction of the southern landing approach.
Skyguide has been working since August to prepare a runway for planes landing from the south.
Runway 34 has never before been used by planes following the southern approach, apart from once in 2000 due to construction work.
Air controllers have had to develop new approach procedures – an overhaul that would normally take “at least six months”, according to Skyguide spokesman, Patrick Herr.
At the same time, Skyguide has had to train 68 controllers. The agency said in a statement that such “a rapid introduction (to a new system) has to be considered an exception, considering the vast responsibilities implicit in air control.”
The additional flight restrictions had been due to come into force during the summer, but Moritz Leuenberger, the Swiss transport minister, earned a stay of execution during talks with his counterpart, Manfred Stolpe.
The delay gave Skyguide time to meet technical requirements to allow planes to fly into Zurich from the south.
Final checks on the new landing system were due to take place on Tuesday in the presence of Skyguide management.
On Monday Leuenberger underlined that safety was paramount.
“If a pilot thinks that the order given to him by the control tower is risky, he has the right to refuse to obey it,” he said.
Another difficulty facing Skyguide is the airport’s decision to delay allowing aircraft to land on Thursday by four minutes to 06h04.
The reason behind the decision is that if aircraft land at 06h00, the noise they generate could disturb nearby German residents at 05h59, allowing them to claim financial compensation.
An airport spokesman told German television that the delay would allow the airport to save “millions of francs”. The late start means Skyguide will lose three landing slots.
swissinfo, Ariane Gigon Bormann in Zurich (translation: Samantha Tonkin)
In April, Berlin banned flights over parts of southern Germany - the main approach to Zurich airport - between 9 pm and 7am.
Previously, aircraft could approach over southern Germany from 6am until 10pm. The restrictions should reduce the number of flights passing over this area by 80,000 a year.
Leuenberger negotiated the original deal in October 2001 with his then German counterpart, Kurt Bodewig.
Both sides agreed to cut by a third - 150,000 to 100,000 - the number of flights permitted to fly over Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany before landing in Zurich – less than 20 kilometres from the German border.
Skyguide, headquartered in Geneva, controls air traffic into Zurich and Geneva airports.
It has a staff of close to 500 at each airport.
Swiss controllers are also responsible for monitoring air traffic over southern Germany.
Following the collapse of an aerial accord between Switzerland and Germany, terms of financial compensation have yet to be worked out.
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