by John Stewart
Recent events have illustrated how much flight paths matter. As Mark Hookham put it in today’s Sunday Times “low-flying aeroplanes are causing uproar in affluent commuter towns and idyllic villages across Britain as airports test new flight paths” – Suburbia in revolt at new f light paths
Unless you are a Harmondsworth resident whose home is threatened by a third runway or an Indian farmer whose land is taken for a new airport, flight paths are what is likely to matter most to you. If planes could land and take off perpendicularly most local objections would fade away.
Flight paths are the motorways of the sky. Building new ones or doubling the traffic on existing ones will always bring a flood of complaints. It happened in Ascot and Teddington in recent months. Eighteen years ago it happened in Brixton, Stockwell and Clapham when landing procedures were tightened up. Aviation Minister Glenda Jackson told the House of Commons (28/10/97): “when the airport is busy, which is for much of the day, aircraft will join the ILS [the final descent path] further east over Battersea, Brixton or Lewisham.” Ms Jackson, the least sympathetic of recent aviation ministers, refused to meet with residents.
One resident wrote at the time: “I’ve lived in Clapham North at the same address for almost 20 years. Until 3 years ago one hardly noticed the planes, apart from Concorde, of course. Then in summer ’95, as if someone somewhere had flicked a switch, the occasional drone became a remorseless whine. It was like an aerial motorway, open from early morning till at least mid-evening.”
And flight paths are going to change again. This time driven by the new computer technology which enables planes to be guided more precisely when landing and taking off. The industry believes this will allow it to make more efficient use of airspace, thus saving on fuel, cutting emissions and reducing delays.
The American airports have gone for the easy option and concentrated flights on a very few number of routes. This has resulted in big protests in places like Chicago: http://www.aviationpros.com/news/11681350/noise-complaints-about-ohare-skyrocket London City Airport, to its shame, is proposing to do the same thing: http://www.hacaneast.org.uk/2014/09/campaigners-call-on-caa-to-suspend-consultation-on-city-airport-flight-paths/
I believe concentration is indefensible in built-up areas. It is asking the chosen communities to bear all the pain. And, whenever surveys are done, they show that people prefer the flight paths to be shared, so that everybody gets a break – some respite – from the noise. That doesn’t mean piling the pressure on Ascot so that other areas can get some relief. What it does mean is finding a balance so that the fewest number people possible are truly disturbed by the noise.
I would argue the current situation across huge swathes of London and the Home Counties is untenable and change can only be a good thing. 40 planes an hour an overfly the Oval Cricket Ground or Clapham Common. This video of Vauxhall, 17 miles from Heathrow, gives a flavour of the disturbance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXf8o_khz8s. A report commissioned by HACAN from the consultants Bureau Veritas found that in Ruskin Park in Camberwell, almost 20 miles from the airport, “aircraft noise dominates the local environment”. And many under the take-off flight paths are experiencing a volume and concentraion of planes they never imagined possible twenty years ago.
Heathrow estimates that, if they get it right, most communities could get relief from the noise 50% or even 75% of the time. In an attempt to get an answer which works both for the industry and for as many residents as possible, Heathrow is doing more pre-planning and conducting more experiments than any other airport in the world before it puts its final proposal out to public consultation.
The devil will be in the detail and there will be areas where ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – maybe parts of West London which enjoy runway alternation. And real care should be taken to avoid the very few plane-free ‘oases’ which still exist. But there is a fighting chance of getting it right and banishing the dark era Glenda Jackson helped usher in nearly 20 years ago.
Ms Jackson is standing down at the next General Election.