Lessons to be learnt from NATS flight path blunder

by John Stewart

23rd March

Some good may yet come out of last week’s revelation that NATS (National Air Traffic Control) failed to tell Heathrow Airport about critical flight path changes.  Residents in the affected areas – Ascot, Binfield, Virginia Water and Bracknell– had consistently complained about the increase in flights over their areas.  Heathrow Airport admitted that trials had taken place in 2014 but argued that since the trials finished, things have returned to normal.  However Heathrow issued a statement – COMPTON FINAL STATEMENT 17 March 14 – last week that it had not been told about an earlier 2014 change made by NATS which is still in place.  It means that planes are using more concentrated flight paths over the affected areas.

In a strong statement Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said:  “I am very concerned that NATS made this change without informing the airport or affected communities about its potential impact, particularly given its effects on some of the same areas to the west of the airport that were affected by the airspace trials we ran last year. Because of the assurances we received, we in turn told residents in good faith that no changes had occurred.  That is unacceptable and I unequivocally apologise to local residents. At my request, the Chief Executive of NATS has agreed to urgently review his company’s processes to ensure that NATS shares this information with the airport to prevent this happening again in the future.”

Heathrow has asked NATS to revert to the pre-2014 flight paths but, so far, NATS has not done so.

 Some scepticism has been expressed that Heathrow did not know about the NATS’ changes but retired flight path controllers have told HACAN that there is no reason why NATS should have told the Airport or even their own spokespeople.  As far as controllers were concerned, they were simply making an alteration to the route departing aircraft took above 8,000 feet in order to ensure more space between planes from Heathrow and those using Stansted and Luton.

This blunder can work in everybody’s favour if it acts as a wake-up call to NATS.  NATS technical staff have a superb record in ensuring flying is safe but the culture must change.  NATS needs to make sure all its staff are aware of the impact the changes they make will have on people on the ground and of the need to communicate any changes clearly to residents and airports.

 But there is a more fundamental challenge for NATS.  It needs to come to accept that it cannot proceed with some of the changes it would like to make if they are going to have a noticeably adverse effect on local communities.  (The only exception to this would be if safety was seriously compromised).  This will require a deep change in the NATS mind-set.

 A new approach from NATS is particularly important at a time when significant changes will be introduced to airspace and flight paths to allow for the effective use of new technology.  At Heathrow, the airport, local authorities, HACAN and others are working together to try to ensure the best all-round outcome.  There will need to be give and take from all bodies.  That must include NATS.

 The most immediate gesture of good faith would be for NATS to reverse flight path changes they made in June 2014…..and to tell us all about it!














The stubborn 30% who remain opposed to a 3rd runway could be politically more important than those who support it

So, how much support is there for a third runway?  Heathrow – understandably from their perspective – made a big deal of this week’s Populus Poll which saw support edge up to just over 50% – http://mediacentre.heathrowairport.com/Press-releases/New-Poll-Growing-local-support-for-Heathrow-expansion-ab2.aspx They have now crafted huge adverts around the findings.

 The reliability of the Populus polls has been questioned because of the way in which they have been conducted – http://hacan.org.uk/blog/?p=316  – but the key stat may be found in a 2007 Populus Poll.  The findings then were very similar to the results of this week’s poll.  It showed 50% in favour and 30% against – http://hacan.org.uk/blog/?p=281

Nothing much has changed since 2007 and critically around a third of people questioned remain opposed to Heathrow expansion.  Across London and the South East that adds up to over one million people.  And that’s a number to worry any Government.  It is a stubborn block of opposition that refuses to be swayed by Heathrow’s advertising blitz or Back Heathrow’s expensive leaflet drops.

I think, though, what Heathrow has achieved is bringing into sharper focus the support there is for a third runway.  That support – some of it active; a lot of it passive – has always been there.  It was simply not part of the narrative 10 years ago.

However, I suspect, when the next Government comes to consider the findings of the Airports Commission, it will be more interested in assessing the level of opposition when coming to a view about the political deliverability of a third runway that how much support it has.  It is the way of politics.

It is likely that a third of residents will continue to oppose expansion, some of them vehemently.  As will the array of environmental groups.  They were an important part of the coalition which saw off the proposals for a third runway last time round.  And Heathrow has not sought to engage with them, nor Back Heathrow to influence them.

Most of the green groups have gone quiet since the third runway was dropped in 2010.  Climate Change is their issue.  They are not really interested in noise or flight paths.  My soundings suggest they will be back if a new runway is given an amber light after the Election.

Heathrow understands there is little they can offer the environmental groups, so have not spent resources trying to influence them.  Heathrow has concentrated its energies in try to offer residents and local authorities a better deal in terms of noise mitigation measures, jobs and compensation.  But, so far, it has not shifted the million plus people inLondonand the South East who remain firmly opposed to expansion.

“If you knew Heathrow was there, why did you move under the flight path?”

by John Stewart

“Well, you knew Heathrow was there, so why did you move under the flight path?”  It is one of the most common responses to residents’ complaints about noise.

And it is not always said in a sneering, aggressive way, although that can and does happen.  Often the questioner is simply drawing a very logical conclusion.  Most of us moved into our homes after Heathrow was opened in 1946; we knew we were under a flight path; haven’t we, therefore, really just got ourselves to blame.

 As you might expect, I’m going to argue it is nothing like as straightforward as that. But first to acknowledge the truth in what is being said.  Over the past 20 years a lot of homes under the flight paths have changed hands.  And some, in the buoyant London market, for figures in excess of a million pounds.  Most of these buyers knew about the flight paths, though some would not have realized how disturbing the planes actually can be until after they moved in.  But HACAN gets a negligible number of complaints from people who have moved under the flight paths in the boroughs closest to Heathrow in recent years.

Now let me take you to Walthamstow.  It could be Leystonstone,Stratford, Catford, Peckham, Brixton or Vauxhall.  Ask yourself, if you were moving into one of these areas, would you ask the estate agents about aircraft noise.  And yet, over the last 20 years, it has become a real problem in these places.

A study HACAN commissioned from the independent noise consultants Bureau Veritas in 2008 found that in places 20 kilometres from Heathrow “aircraft noise dominated the local environment.”  It said there was “an almost constant background of aircraft noise” in Kennington Park, close to the Oval Cricket Ground, well over 15 kilometres from the airport.  And the study concluded:  “The relatively high levels of aircraft noise that do occur at some distance from the airport are certainly enough to be noticed by those living in those areas and in certain circumstances to cause some disturbance and intrusion.”

The big change occurred in the mid-1990s when a change in operational practices meant that aircraft joined their final approach path much further from the airport.  Instead of joining over West London, they were expected to join over SE London.  As one resident wrote, “We didn’t move to the flight path, the flight path moved to us.”  It can make people still living in those areas very angry to be told they were aware that they were under the flight path to a major international airport when they moved in.  Interestingly, the highest number of complaints HACAN continues to get are from areas some distance from the airport.

There is, though, another reason why it is too easy to say that people knew about the airport when the moved in and therefore, it is implied, should shut up about the noise.  Not everybody has a choice about where they live.  People will move to where jobs are and, particularly if you are on a low-income, will want to live as near work as possible in order to reduce travel costs.  Additionally, the many people in social housing have limited choices about location.

 In conclusion, think twice before you say: “You knew Heathrow was there, so why did you move under the flight path?”  It can make a lot of people angry and frustrated because they know that, in their case, it is simply not true.  Or that they had no choice.

Why I’m not despondent at the start of 2015……all because respite is in the air

by John Stewart

Five years ago in the week between Christmas and the New Year I wrote Victory Against All Odds – the story of how the campaign to stop a third runway at Heathrow was won:  http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/how.the.heathrow.campaign.was.won.pdf  It was five months before the 2010 General Election but I was banking on the fact that Labour, which was promoting the new runway would lose, and that David Cameron  – “No ifs; not buts; there will be No Third Runway” – would become Prime Minister.

Five years on the third runway is back on the agenda.  For a short period when Justine Greening was Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers was responsible for aviation and Maria Eagle shadowed transport for Labour, it looked as if we might have killed the third runway.

That hasn’t happened. However, I would argue it has been far from a wasted five years and, in one crucial respect, we are in a better place than we were in 2010.  Amongst my concluding words in Victory Against All the Odds were these: “HACAN has been part of a famous victory. But we have work yet to do.  The planes are still roaring over our heads.  During the years of the campaign the noise has become immeasurably worse for many people.  Planes are lining up to join their final approach path further out than before.  Aircraft noise is now a real problem for more people much further from the airport…..For these people victory in the third runway campaign will ring very hollow indeed if nothing is done about the sky of sound over their heads.”

HACAN had identified the problem at least ten years earlier.  And had it confirmed in 2007 in a report we commissioned from the respected consultancy, Bureau Veritas, which found:

Aircraft noise had become a London-wide problem.  In places 20 kilometres from Heathrow “aircraft noise dominated the local environment.” For example, there was “an almost constant background of aircraft noise” in Kennington Park, close to the Oval Cricket Ground, well over 15 kilometres from the airport.  In some areas of East London flown over by both Heathrow planes and City Airport noise levels were comparable to those in parts of West London.  And its key conclusions were:

“The increase in the number of movements between 1996 and 2005 can clearly be seen.  In terms of geographical spread, the greatest increases have occurred in the early morning and in the evening – arguably the relatively more sensitive times of day. The relatively high levels of aircraft noise that do occur at some distance from the airport are certainly enough to be noticed by those living in those areas and in certain circumstances to cause some disturbance and intrusion.”

 The point is brought to life in this video commissioned by HACAN, where local people in Vauxhall tell their story: http://youtu.be/rXf8o_khz8s

A key task for HACAN in 2010 was to get the authorities to recognise this problem; indeed, more generally, to find ways to improve things for residents under the flight paths of a two-runway Heathrow.  It coincided with a change of attitude from Heathrow Airport, then still called BAA:  they had been chastened by their failure to get a third runway and realized they had to do things differently.

 Five years on, Heathrow not only has recognized that the problem of noise extends way beyond West London but understands that all areas need some respite from the noise.  HACAN has been calling for respite since the mid-1990s and in recent years has worked with Heathrow, NATS, the CAA and British Airways to look at practical ways in which respite can be effectively introduced.

Introducing respite will not be easy.  Other airports across the world have tried it with varying degrees of success.  And, given the size and complexity of the airport, Heathrow’s emerging plans are bold and ambitious.  But if they get it right, it could be a ground-breaking example which other airports across the world could emulate.

 So I’m not despondent five years on.  Whatever happens about a third runway, there is real hope that hundreds of thousands of people who for years have lived with “the sky of sound over their heads” will begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel in 2015.

Santa on 2014 – noise, respite, trials, 3rd runway – and can he meet everybody’s requests for Xmas 2015?

Santa gets it.  He knows just how much of London and the South East is impacted by aircraft noise from Heathrow.    Most people don’t.  They tend to only know their own patch.  Not so Santa.  The nature of his job means he’s familiar with every square mile.

 He wouldn’t be surprised that most years the majority of complaints received by HACAN come from south, south-east and even east London.  He senses most people in west London have learnt to live with the noise.  On the whole, they don’t want any more of it – and they certainly don’t want to loose their respite periods – but in some ways aircraft noise has become part of the fabric of life in west London.

Certainly the biggest demand for ear defenders each year comes from south and south east London.  But Santa has been known to bring them down the chimneys in places as far from Heathrow as Walthamstow, Hackney and Leytonstone.  He suspects part of the reason for the problem in east London is the fact they get City Airport planes as well.  It always amazes him that noise levels of aircraft from City and Heathrow are assessed separately.  That’s not how his customers hear noise!

 Genial though he is, Santa can get annoyed when he hears whispered conversations that people who don’t like noise shouldn’t have moved under the flight path.  He accepts that may be true of people who moved into west London in recent years but it is a silly thing to say about folks living over 20 miles away in south east London.   And even in west London it not always true – in these times of austerity many people have no choice but to move to where they can get a job.

Of course Santa is aware that not all the 766,000 people who are officially impacted by the noise are disturbed by it.  He knows that he has to glide silently down the chimney of around only 10% of homes.  If he could deliver during the day, it would be a bit less.  Still, though, more than any other city in Europe.

In his letters this year one big – and at first sight, rather surprising – request.  The residents of Teddington, Ascot, Englefield Green and one or two others places were adamant:  no present that included “free trials”.

So, what will be the big requests for Christmas 2015?  Santa likes to collect his letters a year in advance to give himself and his elves plenty of time to prepare.

  •  Top of the list comes the call for official periods of respite from the noise.
  •  Heathrow wants respite plus a third runway.
  •  And then there is the annual call for an end to night flights.  Santa feels that this could be a game-changer for people….and make his job so much easier into the bargain.
  •  The residents of the Heathrow villages want still to be in their homes this time next year.
  •  Back Heathrow wants a knighthood for the CEO of Populus for services to polling.

 Santa doesn’t like to disappoint.  But some of the requests appear contradictory. However, he’ll do his best.  He senses he has a chance of pulling something off.

 Have as peaceful a New Year as you can.

The significance of the Sunday Times expose of Back Heathrow’s methods


by John Stewart

The Sunday Times expose of Back Heathrow’s methods is significant – http://hacan.org.uk/?p=2753 . Not because Back Heathrow has hidden the fact it has received considerable funding from Heathrow Airport.  It has made it clear from the early days that Heathrow had put money in.  Much more because the Sunday Times reveals how Back Heathrow fails to spell out to the public it is trying to influence where its funding comes from.  As the Sunday Times said, “Three of the four newsletters delivered during the past year fail to disclose that Back Heathrow is funded by the airport.”

This matters.  If we get a leaflet through our door this Christmas extolling the virtues of Sainsbury’s mince pies over other brands, we will take much more notice of it if we believe it comes from a neutral body.  Similarly, when a Back Heathrow leaflet warns that “114,000 jobs are at risk if Heathrow shuts down”, we are much more likely to be concerned if we believe Back Heathrow is a neutral body.

 Concerned people sign up to Back Heathrow.  Back Heathrow then can claim 50,000 supporters.  The impression is given to politicians that there is growing support for a third runway at Heathrow.

 The reality is different.  There is no hard evidence that support for a 3rd runway is growing (or declining).  We spelt this out in a blog in May of this year –  http://hacan.org.uk/blog/?p=281:

“Last week Heathrow Airport claimed that there was more support now for a 3rd runway than when it was proposed by the last Labour Government.  It cited a recent opinion poll of more than 1,000 local residents by Populus which showed 48% are in favour of a third runway while 34% oppose: http://www.populus.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Heathrow-Borough-Poll-March-2014.pdf.  The reality is different.  HACAN unearthed a Populus poll which revealed that in 2007 50% supported a 3rd runway and 30% against were against: http://www.populus.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/download_pdf-170907-BAA-Heathrow-Future-Heathrow-Poll.pdf

 Support for expansion has always hovered just under 50%, with around a third of people remaining firmly opposed.  In actual numbers, that means hundreds of thousands of people don’t want expansion.  That was enough to kill it off last time.  Back Heathrow need to give politicians the impression that has changed; that a 3rd runway is deliverable.  And they are prepared to use some questionable methods to do so.

Why it’s not necessarily nimby to oppose Heathrow expansion

2nd November 2014

by John Stewart

I would argue that it is not Nimby to oppose expansion at Heathrow.  That’s not to say that there are a lot of people opposing it on Nimby grounds. 

But the day after the Observer revealed that many in the current cabinet are against a third runway – theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/01/third-runway-heathrow-gatwick-expansion?CMP=twt_gu … – it is worth saying that a strong case can be made against Heathrow expansion on grounds that has very little to do with Nimbyism.

 Many of the arguments have been well-rehearsed.  

According to the European Commission, there are at least 720,000 people living under the Heathrow flight paths; that is 28% of all people impacted by aircraft noise across Europe.  http://hacan.org.uk/10-reasons-to-oppose-a-3rd-runway/

The Heathrow flight paths go over more deprived areas (as well as some of the richest) than any other UK airport (though, calculated by percentage of the population of the city affected, Glasgow may be higher)

Air Pollution levels around Heathrow tend to be stubbornly above the EU legal limits

And the economic case for Heathrow expansion is not, in my view, a game-changer.  More business people and tourists fly into London each year than fly to any other city in the world.  Most have no preference which airport they use. This trend will continue whether or not a third runway is built at Heathrow.  Read more in this blog  click here  and click here http://hacan.org.uk/blog/?p=321

The non-nimby case against Heathrow expansion is expanded on the HACAN website:  http://hacan.org.uk/10-reasons-to-oppose-a-3rd-runway/

 To be fair to Heathrow, and much of the aviation industry, they have never accused HACAN of being nimby.  The accusation tends to come from a myriad of individuals.

 Quite simply, I would not be prepared to lead a nimby campaign.  I have watched nimbys in action and I don’t like what I see.  I get particularly irriated by nimbys picking and choosing arguments to ‘support’ their case when they really mean ‘not in my backyard’.

 Let’s not lower the Heathrow argument to nimbyism.  An economic argument can be made for the expansion of Heathrow.  I believe a stronger overall argument can be made against it.  The fact that leading politicians of all parties – some of them with no constituency interest in the matter – have come out against expansion re-enforces my view there is a powerful (non-nimby) case against a 3rd runway.  I urge all those who so freely throw around the accusation of nimbyism to join in the debate that is taking place.

Flight Paths Matter: there is a chance we can get them right


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.

Labour fixes Election line on airport expansion

Labour seems have got its line fixed for the General Election. 

  • More airport capacity essential to Britain’s economic success.
  • The need, therefore, to take a decision shortly after the Election.
  • Say nothing until Davies comes out.  Won’t necessarily endorse the Davies recommendations.
  • Mind not made up between a 3rd runway at Heathrow or a 2nd one at Gatwick.
  • Environmental considerations will be factored into the decision.

Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, spelt out the line in his key note speech to the Labour Conference: “Whatever the outcome of the Howard Davies review into airport capacity, we must resolve to finally make a decision on airport capacity in London and the South-East — expanding capacity while taking into account the environmental impact.  No more kicking into the long-grass, but taking the right decisions for Britain’s long-term future.

Mary Creagh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said something very similar in her speech: “More airport capacity is vital to Britain’s economic success, but David Cameron was too weak to deliver it. So he kicked it into the long grass. That led to Boris Johnson’s fantasy island airport …. The one that would have closed Heathrow, destroyed jobs and put London at risk of flooding. £5 million of public money wasted on his vanity project, but it was never about the country’s future. …. The next Labour Government will make a swift decision on airport expansion in the national interest.”

At the fringe meetings I attended, Hilary Benn, Andrew Adonis and David Lammy came out with much the same line, though both Adonis and Lammy are thought to be a Heathrow supporters.  The only open Heathrow support I heard of was from Margaret Hodge but since the days of the big battles about road building twenty years ago Hodge has had a reputation of being blind to environmental impacts of these kind of projects and shouldn’t be seen as typical in the Party.

Labour is trying to reassure big business it will not dither but is keenly aware of the environmental downsides of new runways, and, in particular, the toxic noise question at Heathrow.  Mary Creagh was kind enough at one of the fringes to praise the work HACAN had done on noise.

But climate change is emerging as a clear consideration in Labour’s policy-making.  I went to the SERA Rally where shadow ministers as diverse as Caroline Flint and Chukka Umunna stressed that climate change was central to the policy-making process under Ed Miliband.  The Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s advisers, argue that one new runway would not breach the country’s CO 2 targets but it is clear that, unless technology was to improve by leaps and bounds over the next 20 years, an extra runway at Gatwick or Heathrow would severely curtail the scope for growth at the other UK airports.

Labour seems to have decided that is a risk worth taking.  It believes there is a need to build a new runway in the South East.  Can it deliver?  The only one of the questions I asked at the fringe meetings that was skated over was on deliverability: “Is a third runway at Heathrow politically deliverable”.    

There are at least 6 reasons to oppose a 3rd runway at Heathrow

Here they are (in no particular order):

1. 725,000 live under the Heathrow flightpaths. (click on table to enlarge)

Numbers under Heathrow's flight paths

eathrow2. It is not essential for London economy: read why http://hacan.org.uk/blog/?p=321 

3. London is Europe’s most overflown city: compare plane landing at Barcelona http://youtu.be/pSA_xx0LJ1s 

4. Heathrow the only major UK airport where air pollution levels in a few areas remain stubbornly above EU legal limits

5. M25 between junctions 14 and 15 (Heathrow to the M4) the busiest motorway in UK. http://cars.uk.msn.com/features/britains-record-breaking-roads?page=12 …

6. At least 750 homes would be demolished. Lives disturbed and communities destroyed.