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Threats to employment at Liege Airport: blackmail or real risk?

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The debate around the renewal of the Liege Airport permit for twenty years is emblematic: does the employment at stake justify the inconveniences caused? Some denounce job blackmail, others refuse to sacrifice the tool. Famous dilemma.

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No one is happy, but we have to decide. It is ultimately to this judgment that the Walloon government is condemned these days, in the dossier for the renewal of the Liege Airport environmental permitwhich will mark its activities until 2042.

An agreement must be reached before the end of the month. Formally, two members of the executive are looking for common ground: the Minister of the Environment, Céline Tellier (Ecolo), and the Minister of Regional Planning, Willy Borsus (MR). Two partners who, a few days ago, defended different visions of the balance to be found between employment and the socio-economic aspect on the one hand, environmental concerns and noise pollution on the other.

As a reminder, on August 26, 2022, a single permit was granted. But the 26 appeals filed in the process led the Walloon administration to issue a modified version in this month of January, around which the ministers are negotiating.

Among the applicantsrepresentatives of local residents, associations criticizing the development of the airport, the Flemish Region, Flemish and Dutch municipalities, but also three Walloon municipalities (Hannut, Donceel, Fexhe-le-Haut-Clocher). Several appeals have also come from the other sideso to speak, who considered the permit too restrictive: Liege Airport, as well as several operators concerned (FedEx, Challenge, ASL, etc.).

Their two main grievances concerned limitation of activity to 50,000 movements per year and thea progressive reduction of noise quotas (based on hypothetical data for 2023), 5% per year for ten years then 3% per year until 2042. For Liege Airport, whose business model is based on 24-hour activity, this meant the death of nightlife in Bierset.

The fear of relocation

In its new versionthe administration proposed a maintenance of 50,000 annual movements, but a relaxation of the reduction in noise quotaswhich would start in 2024, to reach 75% of the quotas for 2021 by 2040. With 45,000 total movements, it was a good year for Liege Airport, which makes this rather advantageous relaxation for airport infrastructure. But the administration adds a measure that is not to the liking of the airport and especially of the operators: the ban on night take-offs (between 11 p.m. and 6:59 a.m.) of the noisiest aircraft from 2030.

We are mainly talking about the Boeing 747-400s in the cargo business, which are very noisy, but which aret impossible to replace the entire fleet in such a short time. This is at least what the CEO of Liege Airport, Laurent Jossart, denounced in the columns of The Echo January 18. Liege Airport, moreover, recalls having put in place financial incentives to encourage companies to reduce nighttime nuisancesbut dreads relocations in the event of too abrupt closure of time slots inherent in the cargo business.

In this dossier, which has become eminently political, thehe two ministers concerned displayed, before entering the final phase of negotiations, significantly different visions. Céline Tellier intends to stick to the 50,000 movements, not wishing to further penalize local residents, as she expressed in The Echo January 19. His colleague Willy Borsus, in the same daily three days later, considered this limitation untenable. The Walloon Region has shown itself to be proactive in terms of reducing nuisances, he maintains. Moreover, “a government is not intended to destroy what it has taken years to build and successfully build”. At great expense, moreover: since 2001, 315 million in infrastructure and 442 million in environmental measures.

© belga image

Five thousand jobs sacrificed at Liege Airport, really?

Above all, it is the specter of job losses being held up as a threatwithout it being possible to measure exactly whether this is a real risk or a form of “employment blackmail”.

Following the granting of the permit in August 2022, Liege Airport issued a warning: five thousand jobs could be lost, if the first version of the permit were ultimately to be approved. And the prospects for job creation over the next twenty years would be largely compromised.

Why this number? If the main operator, FedEx, were to go to another airport, this would mean a loss of around two thousand direct jobs and as many indirect jobs. To these could be added a thousand jobs lost by the departure of other operators.

FedEx remains the first employer on the site. The American express manufacturer had already announced a partial transfer of activities from Liège to Paris, before the permit was granted. With the arrival of the permit, the fear exists that he invokes the contract concluded with the Walloon Region on his arrival in 1996, which guaranteed him an airport open 24 hours a day and an unlimited number of flights, to claim compensation.

At present, the number regularly put forward is approximately ten thousand jobs linked to the activity of Liege Airport. It comes from a study carried out on the basis of 2020 figures by the Segefa (study service in fundamental and applied economic geography) of ULiège, published in June 2022.

This cadastre indeed shows that Liege Airport is a major job provider: 10,135 direct and indirect jobs, i.e. 8,435 full-time equivalents. The calculation is as follows, recalls the director of Segefa, Guénaël Devillet: these are 4,725 direct jobs, plus 3,025 indirect jobs. The number of indirect jobs is estimated according to a coefficient of 0.64 in relation to direct jobs, established on the basis of international studies. “It’s a conservative estimate,” he said. But this remains less than the aeronautical industrial sector, “where this coefficient is estimated at 1.7. We can think of Sonaca, Safran, etc.”

To these direct and indirect jobs are added 20% of induced jobs, linked to the daily living expenses of these workers. “We can still add a few so-called catalytic jobs, linked to overnight stays at the hotel for on-board staff, for example,” continues Guénaël Devillet. The total therefore amounts to 10,000 jobs, of which – according to Liege Airport and the disgruntled operators – almost half could be threatened by overly restrictive beacons.

“50,000 is already a progression”

For other protagonists, the argument does not hold water. This is the case of the Walloon deputy Olivier Bierin (Ecolo), who estimates that “going to 50,000 movements is already an evolution of 25% compared to the current situation”, knowing that in 2021, some 39,124 Movements of aircraft weighing more than 34 tonnes or more than 19 passengers (i.e. the category of machinery that generates the most noise pollution) were recorded. Minister Borsus indicates that there were already 45,000 movements in 2012, but it was not the same category of aircraft. In fact, we estimate that 50,000 movements is already a compromise”, even if the CEO of Liege Airport recalls that his 2020-2040 business plan was counting on practically 70,000 movements in the long term.

For some, the employment argument does not hold water.  It's blackmail.
For some, the employment argument does not hold water. It’s blackmail. © photo news

Olivier Bierin, he evokes another file which marked the region of Liège. “In the steel industry, by being quite conservative in their reasoning, the former politicians did worse than good. The argument that we’ve already put a lot of money into the tool, it’s job blackmail, even risk-taking.” And the ecologist to evoke potential decisions of the European Commission, or legal decisions, which could put a stop to the activity. So on the job.

The long time, the short time

“How can we still put forward this single argument when we know the environmental situation?”, protests Cédric Leterme, member of Stop Alibaba & Co, a front which militates against the extension of Liege Airport. “Decisions must be made within environmental limits. We keep hearing about a balance to be found. But the balance, it’s been a long time since it was killed. On a dead planet, there will be no more jobs.”

He also denounces job blackmail. “It is true that the unions have negotiated more attractive monetary conditions at FedEx, but overall, what jobs are we talking about? Night work, on Sundays, with temporary workers, etc.” It is also, between the lines, the question of the model of society to defend who arises.

Employment is weighed against environmental, societal and health values. In a completely different register, this complex debate recalls that which is played out around the FN Herstal, between socio-economic and ethical parameters, or in the nuclear industry, the steel industry, etc.

“In these debates, it all depends on the glasses you wear and which make you fit into a certain temporality, observes Guénaël Devillet. The question for the long term is to anticipate changes and invest to replace what exists and is in danger of collapsing (for example, targeting transition sectors). But in the short term, it is not justifiable to sabotage a sector with so many jobs., of course for employees, business leaders, trade unions but also simply for the state coffers which are increasingly based on work-related expenses. In this context, the political authorities will rather be part of an immediate temporalitywhich does not necessarily coincide with more global issues.

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