Rethink on aviation noise another win for US trade

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 October, 1999, 12:00am

Pulling back from the brink of yet another exchange of sanctions with the United States, European Union transport ministers have decided to take a new look at their proposed ban on aircraft fitted with 'hush kits'.

The move probably will mean another delay in the introduction of the EU's tough new noise reduction legislation.

Last April ministers bowed to pressure from Washington and agreed to postpone the introduction of the controversial new noise standards by a year until next May.

It may also signal a more serious climbdown. There are fears the ministers may now be bullied into accepting less stringent noise standards, despite the protests from environmentalists while groups directly affected by aircraft noise say the kits are not enough.

However, the US Government argues the kits meet International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) noise standards. It has repeatedly threatened action in the ICAO and the World Trade Organisation if the ban goes ahead.

It has even threatened to ban the supersonic - and very noisy - Concorde from landing at US airports in retaliation.

Banning the prestige Anglo-French jet would be a logical step for European governments too.

But national pride is at stake, to say nothing of BA and Air France profits, and Concorde would have been exempted from the new noise rules - along with other elderly European aircraft.

For those unfortunate to live in the flight-paths of Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport, the EU's backdown may be a relief.

A European ban would lead Asian airlines to reroute older, noisier aircraft to less fussy destinations outside the EU. For Europeans the decision to back down is, arguably, just another defeat in the face of commercial power.

It is another sign that the rights of the consumer, the health and well-being of the public and the quality of life must all be sacrificed for the sake of trade relations with the United States and the profits of US industry.

Washington's insistence on exporting hormone-treated beef and genetically modified foods to Europe, despite consumer protests, has confirmed the European view of American trade policy as selfish and unscrupulous.

Yet on this occasion the Americans have a point in arguing the EU's anti-noise legislation is discriminatory. The legislation would prevent European airlines registering additional planes from May if they were fitted with hush kits. Planes registered in other countries would be banned from flying in the EU from 2002.

Yet older EU aircraft would be allowed to keep flying provided they met ICAO standards.

Washington has been surprisingly conciliatory in the latest negotiations. Faced with a blunt European refusal to withdraw the ban altogether, William Daley and Rodney Slater, the US secretaries for commerce and transportation, wrote to the EU Commission offering to negotiate new international noise standards to benefit everybody.

In a note to the Commission's Spanish vice-president Loyola de Palacio, they said both sides had a common interest in reducing noise pollution and offered to try to reach agreement by September 2001.

Seen in this light, the EU's move might prove a welcome signal that Brussels, too, is ready to try and take some of the tension out of the trans-Atlantic relationship in advance of the gruelling WTO Millennium Trade Round starting later this year.

It is clear that neither the EU nor the US benefits from the tit-for-tat trade sanctions and ugly confrontations in the WTO that have marred relations over the past year.

So far, the ministers have only instructed the European Commission 'to reach a common understanding on close co-operation' with the US by the end of this month.

With such a tight deadline and such a limited remit, there is plenty of scope for the talks to end in acrimonious failure before the real nitty-gritty details of noise standards and discrimination in favour of European airlines even come up.

Nor is it clear that either side is genuinely concerned enough to negotiate.

With such powerful commercial interests at stake, talks on a new ICAO standard are a grand excuse for delay and obfuscation.

They also have the advantage of keeping the issue out of the Millennium Round of talks and keeping it in the lower-profile forum of the ICAO.

But unless US hush kit makers are ready and able to meet new, tougher standards, there is not much chance of agreement without a much longer lead-time than the EU is currently contemplating.