On a recent day, Michael Kerkloh, the chief executive officer of Munich Airport, joked that he would have to stay in his post until 2050 to see a contentious plan for a new runway come to fruition.
It was just a quip, but one that indicated a thorny truth. A proposal to expand capacity at Munich Airport, Germany’s second busiest, by adding a third runway has been the subject of debate for years. Federal and state authorities are in favor of the expansion, but local officials remain hesitant. Recently, the airport’s supervisory board decided not to go ahead with the plan, but to postpone further discussions until the end of the year, at the earliest.
The pained deliberations in Munich are emblematic of a wider tendency across Germany. While aviation industry experts argue the need to expand airport capacity across the country is well-established, residents with concerns about the environmental impacts resist and hinder such expansions. As a result, Germany is at risk of being left behind when it comes to air travel, say aviation experts, potentially dragging down economic growth.
Statistics show that Germany is failing to fully capitalize on the rapid growth in air traffic across Europe. The number of air passengers in Germany rose by 3.4 percent last year, according to the German Aviation Association. Growth in other countries, however, was far higher – reaching 11 percent is Spain and 8.6 percent in Denmark. In Europe, the sector as a whole saw 5.4 percent growth in 2016, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
In theory, Germany, with its strong, export-led economic growth, should be benefiting from the aviation boom more than most other European nations. The lagging growth, according to aviation experts, is at least partly the result of limited capacity.
“It’s crucial for Germany that connectivity to other cities and overseas markets is as good as possible,” Brian Pearce, chief economist at IATA, warned.
Politicians, however, have often been reluctant to push expansion efforts in the face of opposition from local communities concerned about the increase in noise and pollution as well as climate change.
For their part, aviation industry insiders say the lacking political will can partly be explained by the fact that politicians do not fully grasp the importance of air traffic to economic growth. Stefan Schulte, the head of Fraport, the operator of Frankfurt’s airport, points out that the aviation industry employs 830,000 people in Germany – more than the auto industry (which employs some 785,000 people, according to the German Association of the Automotive Industry).
Yet, according to Mr. Schulte, the overall economic benefit spurred by the aviation industry is in many ways indirect and harder to measure. “International connections are important for competitiveness, but that’s a derivative effect,” he said. “It’s more difficult to get that across.”
Germany has undertaken a major multi-billion dollar new international airport project just outside Berlin to accommodate the rapid rise in air traffic to the city. Yet, that project has now become infamous for its interminable delays due to fire safety issues. When it opens, the Berlin airport may already be too small to accommodate air traffic without delays.
Without extra capacity, Munich Airport will soon face bottlenecks that will chase away international airlines.
Elsewhere in the country, there are no runway expansion efforts outside of Munich. Terminal capacity in some airports is being increased. Yet, even these plans have come up against resistance. In Hamburg, for example, plans for 12 new gates were approved in 2013, but the project still faces fierce opposition from environmental groups.
Mr. Kerkloh of Munich Airport referred to the plans for an additional runway as a “project of national significance.” He predicts passenger growth of 4 to 5 percent by the end of the year, much of that growth prompted by the boom in budget airline travel. Without additional capacity, Mr. Kerkloh argues, Munich Airport will soon face bottlenecks that will chase away international airlines.
Munich Airport’s supervisory board chairman, Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder, is confident that the runway project will eventually go forward. The project has the support of the state of Bavaria, the German federal government and all employee representatives, he said. Munich’s mayor, Dieter Reiter, however, has advocated holding off on the project.
The reason for his hesitance is clear. In 2012, Munich residents voted against the third runway in a city referendum. German courts later ruled in favor of allowing the project to proceed, but local opposition continues. A local environmental group says that runway project “will harm people, nature and the climate” without benefiting the local economy.
Mr. Kerkloh acknowledges that the runway project will not be feasible without the support of local residents, but he argues that the fate of a project of such national significance should not be left up to local residents alone.
“What we therefore have to do is to keep explaining it,” he said. “We must not give up.”
Joachim Hofer covers the high-tech industry and IT for Handelsblatt. Jens Koenen is lead reporter for the aviation and IT industry, and Frankfurt bureau chief. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com