COMMENT: Budapest Airport's expansion puts a heavy toll on local residents

COMMENT: Budapest Airport's expansion puts a heavy toll on local residents
In December 2018, the EIB gave Budapest Airport a loan of €200mn, intended to increase passenger turnover from 16 million in the peak year of 2019 to 21 million. / bne IntelliNews
By Anna Roggenbuck, and Michaela Kozminova of Bankwatch February 10, 2023

At the end of 2021, after years of complaints by local residents, the European Investment Bank agreed that the planned expansion of Budapest Airport it was funding was in violation of the bank’s environmental and social standards and issued a set of recommendations to change that.

One year later, these recommendations have not been implemented and the airport’s neighbours continue to struggle with unbearable air pollution, cracks on houses and sleepless nights caused by loud planes regularly passing just above their roofs. What is more, they have never been consulted about the project’s next steps.  

In December 2018, the EIB gave Budapest Airport a loan of €200mn, intended to increase passenger turnover from 16 million in the peak year of 2019 to 21 million. The loan was also guaranteed by the EU’s European Fund for Strategic Investments. 

Based on civil society complaints about the absence of public consultations and increased air and noise pollution resulting from the airport’s expansion, the EIB’s Complaint Mechanism launched an investigation into the investments. 

Published in October 2021, the investigation report confirmed the submitted allegations: no environmental impact assessment has been done for the project (except for an outdated one, from 1976) and the locals have been deprived of their right to be consulted on the expansion plans and on measures to mitigate its impacts.

However, after originally being viewed with great hope, a year later the investigation’s findings haven’t produced any meaningful results.  

Following the report’s revelation that the project breached the EU’s environmental legislation and the EIB’s environmental and social standards, the EIB Complaints Mechanism recommended that the bank not disburse its loan to the project until the promoter presents the environmental impact assessment for the remaining project components.

But instead of forcing the bank to suspend its disbursements to the project, the report instead prodded the bank and its partners to modify the project so that the new components wouldn’t need environmental assessment to get the funding, notably by withdrawing the proposal for a third terminal. As a result, no new adequate assessment of the cumulative impacts of the project has been carried out.  

Terrible living conditions

“In one word: terrible,” says Zoltán Frik, President of the Association for Civilised Air Transport, when asked about living conditions next to Budapest Airport. “Airplanes often take off every two minutes at dawn, with a noise impact of 90 to 100 decibels measured individually. We, who live about 75 metres from the fence, often wake up at night’. 

In October 2019, the airport introduced a ‘deep sleep operation’ charge for flights between midnight and 5 a.m. However, ranging between €1,250-2,500, the fee does not effectively motivate airlines to refrain from flights at these hours. 

The Budapest Airport came up with a strategic noise map in July 2022 in order to assess the need for noise protection activities. The Association for Civilised Air Transport has been vocal about the fact that according to the map, residential buildings located just 70 metres from the airport fence belong to a C-type noise barrier zone. While a B-type noise barrier zone would mean complete building insulation, and type A would mean the buyout of the affected owners, C doesn’t guarantee any meaningful help from the project promoter. 

Yet during the summer, the airport announced “the largest and most serviceable residential noise protection programme of all time” – again, without asking the affected locals about what noise protection measures were acceptable for them.  

“The sound attenuation capability of glass offered is insufficient in the houses nearest the runways. Moreover, gardens and areas outside the houses remain impacted by heavy noise and air pollution, making it impossible to have conversations outside and [making it a] nonsense to grow fruits and vegetables in the gardens,” said Teodóra Dönsz-Kovács, programme manager at Friends of the Earth Hungary (MTVSZ).  

The invisible threat of booming air traffic 

Dust and kerosene pollution has been making life next to the airport bitter for years. According to an assessment conducted by the Association for Civilised Air Transport, the levels of micro-dust pollution in a radius of 9 kilometres around the airport could potentially be 4 to 13 times the average level.  

In September 2022, Bankwatch visited some of the impacted residents. Ms László Csellár moved to the area in 1973. Back then, she said, it was a quiet neighbourhood. She explained that aircraft were smaller, and flights were not so frequent 50 years ago. In the recent years, however, gusts of wind generated by turbulence from giant planes have repeatedly knocked tiles from her roof and caused cracks on the walls of her and her neighbours’ houses. 

In recent months, the Budapest Airport has been busy promoting itself as a sustainability champion – from installing charging stations for electric vehicles to relocating the local ground squirrel colony. And the EIB has been quietly tolerating this green charm offensive, while ignoring the recommendations of its own Complaint Mechanism for over a year. 

The case shows that the EIB is still missing the environmental, social and human rights standards and due diligence procedures needed to ensure that the projects it supports comply with EU law and the EIB’s own policies. Without them, the bank’s claims about investing in a sustainable future for all remain just a plain public relations exercise. 

Most of the expansion activities have already been implemented (like a new pier and Cargo City) or are underway, trapping residents in miserable living conditions. The least the EIB could do is making sure its own recommendations are implemented and that the impacted community gets properly consulted about future developments in its neighbourhood and potential opportunities to remedy the problems.