Why HACAN Backs Respite

There have been a number of tweets recently asking why HACAN backs respite (predicable periods of relief from the aircraft noise).  

In a word, it’s because it is what the majority of our supporters tell us they want.  The call has been long, loud and consistent over many years.

That is not to say that everybody wants it.  A number of people – particularly those living under take-off routes – prefer dispersal.  That’s fine.

The take-off corridors, known as Noise Preferential Routes, are three kilometers wide.  They were established in the 1960s and, until relatively recently, aircraft, when taking off, were spread across the corridor.  It meant that, while nobody got guaranteed periods of silence, no community was continuously overflown.  It also helped that there were three and sometimes four NPRs in use at any one time which spread the load around.  (Over recent years planes have become much more concentrated on the centre-line of the NPRs which is causing big problems – I will return to that later).

The situation with landings has been very different.  People can feel bombarded by the noise. And want a break from it. Of course a minority of people under the landing flight paths already get respite.  These are the communities living in the West London boroughs closest to Heathrow.  Since the 1970s planes landing at Heathrow have switched runways at 3pm to give these people a half day’s break from the noise. (Of course, if you live between the two runways, the benefit is much less apparent).

But everybody else under the landing flight paths gets no respite.  People are suffering badly.  I wrote in an earlier blog: “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 can 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 2007 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”.   It said that in Kennington Park, close to the Oval, there was “an almost constant background of aircraft noise.”  And in some areas of East London flown over by both Heathrow planes and City Airport it showed noise levels were comparable to those in parts of West London.

And this had been going on since 1995/6 when landing procedures were tightened up.  Glenda Jackson, aviation minister at the time, 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.”

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.”

Since those days that resident and thousands like him have been calling for a break from the noise, for some form of respite.  And HACAN has backed them.

To some extent we got distracted from the task when we were forced to fight a third runway when it was proposed (in 2002/3 by the last Labour Government). 

When the proposal was defeated after an eight year I wrote in  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) :

“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.”

The victory in 2010 gave us a new opportunity to get something done.  Heathrow Airport had lost the battle.  As a result, it was much more inclined to listen to residents than before.  HACAN and Heathrow agreed to park the things that divided us – notably a third runway and night flights – and see how, through an element of cooperation, we could find ways to improve matters for residents at a two runway airport.  It was in the interest of both of us to do so.

Top of our agenda was improving the day-to-day noise climate for residents.  Respite was the constant call for people under the landing flight paths.  But things were changing too for people within the take-off Noise Preferential Routes.  Planes were being directed down the centre-line of the NPRs.  HACAN argued – and still argues –  that there should be either a return to dispersal or an alternation of the routes within the NPRs.

Concentration anywhere without respite would be unacceptable.  It would simply create noise ghettos.

There was pressure from outside the UK for concentration.  New technology enabled planes to be guided much more precisely on landing and departure.  In theory this allowed for planes to line up many miles from the airport and land on one or two narrow corridors.  It saved the airlines time and cut fuel costs.  But it would have been utterly unfair on the residents who found themselves under the chosen flight paths.  Most American airports have gone for this pure concentration approach, causing uproar in the localities.

But, more positively, this new precision technology can potentially provide the respite that many residents have been wanting for twenty years.  A series of concentrated flight paths, regularly rotated, would share out the noise.  I’m aware of the problems inherent in this but doing nothing is simply not an option for tens of thousands of residents.

The challenge is to find a way to bring relief without impacting noticeably on new areas.  HACAN has been talking constructively about this with the aviation industry for some time.  And Heathrow has now commissioned a study to look at how respite could be implemented in practical terms.

Of course its motives are mixed – one of them is to try to make a third runway more palatable – and HACAN itself has been accused of being too close to the industry.  It is for others to make up their minds about that, on the basis of the facts.  But I truly believe that this engagement does represent the best opportunity for two decades for many long-suffering residents to get a bit of peace and quiet.


Noise Metrics: the Curious Case of Leq


by Dr Chris Woodward , Research Team, CHATR (Chiswick Against Third Runway)

There has been a fair bit of dispute recently about whether or not the Heathrow noise climate has been getting better or not.  Heathrow Airport claims it has.  Many residents say is has not.

A lot can be explained by the way annoyance cause by aircraft noise is measured, as Chris Woodward explains:  

Much information on airport noise uses a family of metrics to measure annoyance known as Equivalent Continuous Sound Levels (Leq). Of the noise maps presented by the Airports Commission, for example, about two-thirds use these.

The general idea behind Leq is that, with an intermittent source of noise pollution (such as aircraft flying overhead), it is not unreasonable to calculate an average to express the general noise level over a given time period. Incidentally the period often used is the 16 hours between 0700 and 2300, in which case the metric is abbreviated to LAeq16h (the “A” subscript refers to a correction to take account of the varying sensitivity of the human ear to different sound frequencies).

In order to calculate such an average one needs a record of how noise intensity, expressed as decibels (dB), changes over time. Now the decibel is an exotic beast, in the jungle of scientific units, partly because it is logarithmic. This means (amongst other things) that an increase – say a doubling – of sound intensity, does not result in a doubling of the decibel reading. In fact it results in an increase of 3 dB units (regardless of the initial decibel level). An increase of 10-fold in sound intensity leads to an increase of 10 dB units. Such are the wonders of logarithms.

There are a number of reasons for using a logarithmic unit to express sound intensity. One is that human beings perceive the loudness of sounds in roughly the same way. So, for example, a doubling of sound intensity (as measured scientifically using a recording device) would be perceived as a much smaller increase in loudness by people rating the change on a subjective scale. So the decibel, although not a perfect measure of loudness as perceived by the human ear (and brain), is not too far adrift either. So far, so sensible, more or less.

Problems arise however when this logarithmic scale is combined, in a calculation, with the variable time in order to arrive at an overall “average”. In particular, the way Leq metrics are calculated is not, as one might expect, to take the average of the decibel reading over time, but rather to take the average of the underlying sound intensity (as measured scientifically) and then apply the mathematical logarithm function afterwards.

Those whose school mathematics is rusty may need reminding that these two methods of calculation give radically different results. Of particular interest is the impact of an increase in the number of sound events – say planes flying overhead – on the calculation. For example, if the number of overflights in a time period increases by 50% (approximately the projected overall increase if a third runway is built), one might expect a sensible metric of noise pollution to increase by 50% as well. And this is indeed what the first calculation method would show. But this is not how Leq is calculated: using the actual method of calculation, Leq would increase by a mere 2 dB units. So, if you are a few miles from Heathrow, and your current LAeq16h is say 57dB, a 50% increase in overflights will “only” increase this to 59dB! Incidentally, the same criticism applies to some other metrics where sound intensity is combined with time, for example Sound Exposure Level (SEL).

So is Leq a useful unit?

For scientists, it is an objective average of sound intensity. But as a measure of noise pollution, perceived by human beings, its value seems limited and the data it generates misleading. Members of the public could be forgiven for considering it more than a little opaque: but at least, if they have read this blog, they will understand one reason why published noise maps, projected to apply if a third runway is built, show relatively small differences from the current ones.

Is Heathrow getting quieter? Yes and No


by John Stewart

Is the overall noise climate around Heathrow improving?  In recent weeks there have been claims and counter-claims.  We try to unravel them.

‘Around Heathrow’ is possibly not the right phrase.  Flights from Heathrow can cause problems to people living 25 miles from the airport.  So, is the overall noise climate improving?

Last year (2014) the number of people blighted by Heathrow aircraft noise hit a 13-year high of just over 270,000, according to figures from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) based on the Government’s preferred measurement.

But Heathrow recently released figures which claimed the numbers impacted had fallen from 750,000 in 2013 to 702,000 last year.

To confuse things further both the CAA and Heathrow are correct! They are measuring the noise using different .

The CAA is using the Government’s preferred noise measurement known as the 57 LAeq contour.  This looks at the number of planes, and the noise of each plane, flying over an area over a 16 hour day.  The noise is then averaged out over the day.  If the average is 57 decibels or more, that area is considered to be affected by the noise.

This 57 decibel cut off point has for years been widely criticized.  Places like Fulham and Putney, clearly impacted by aircraft noise, lie outside the contour.  Most European countries use a different measurement and the recent Airports Commission Report downplayed it.

But the CAA is correct that the numbers within the 57LAeq contour have risen.  This is thought to be down to people moving into new homes and properties becoming households of multiple occupancy.  This increased population has off-set any benefits from less noisy aircraft and improved operational practices.

So where did Heathrow get its figures?  It used the measurement known as Lden recommended by the European Commission.  This averages out noise over a 12 hour day, then separately over a four hour evening and an eight hour night.  It adds 5 decibels to the evening measurement and 10 decibels to the night one to allow for lower background noise levels at these times.

It is regarded as more accurate than the 57LAeq contour.  It certainly tallies more closely with the actual areas where noise is problematic.  In London is includes area such as Clapham.  The total numbers affected has been considerably over 700,000.

Heathrow, however, has brought the total number down to 702,000.  It’s is good PR for the company.  Whilst their new figure is technically accurate, the sleight of hand they have used to get it would have wide-boys of the world purring with pleasure.

The reason why the overall numbers is down is simply because of a reduction in night noise.  Because 10 decibels are added to night flight noise to account for the lower background levels, Heathrow has only to introduce a relatively small number of less noisy planes at night to make a disproportional impact to overall noise levels.  That is what has happened.

The Airports Commission picked up on the inadequacy of current noise metrics.  It has recommended a suite of metrics being used to give a more accurate picture including metrics like N60 which indicate quite simply the number of planes which go overran area that are above 60 decibels.  To their credit, Heathrow have endorsed the need for a range of metrics to be used to measure ad explain noise annoyance.

The metrics story has a long way to run but, at present, beware that noise measurements may hide more than they reveal.







Dave – what’s your legacy?


Guest blog from Jenine Langrish

Three parties, three leaders: Tony Blair; Nick Clegg; and David Cameron.  How will history remember them?

Tony Blair united the Labour party and led them to their biggest ever majority and three consecutive election victories.  His government oversaw the introduction of a national minimum wage; freedom of information; devolution; and the signing of the Good Friday agreement.

And yet…if you ask the man in the street, he’s remembered for just one thing: his misguided decision to support George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, justified by the claim that Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

That single policy decision has led to mass vilification in the media and ensures that he will forever be remembered as “Tony B-liar”.

Under Nick Clegg’s leadership the Lib Dems soared in popularity and surprised everyone by securing enough votes to hold the balance of power following 2010’s election.  For the first time since the days of Asquith and Lloyd George, the political party in the centre of politics held real power.  They can claim credit for a number of policies in the coalition government, notably raising the tax threshold to take over 3 million low earners out of the income tax system; introducing the pupil premium; and creating the Green Investment Bank.

And yet…once again, if you ask the man in the street, Clegg is remembered for just one thing: breaking his promise on student tuition fees.

That single concession in the coalition agreement discussions led to highly personal attacks in the media and to his party’s vote being decimated in the last election.

Which brings me to David Cameron.  He can claim credit for having overseen the recovery from the financial crisis; bringing the deficit under control; and generally keeping his party’s divisions on Europe under control.

But how will he be remembered in ten years time?  The lesson from Tony Blair and Nick Clegg is that the public have little tolerance if they believe politicians have lied or broken high profile promises.  Part of the reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise ascendancy appears to be that Labour’s grass roots supporters saw him as an honest man who’d do what he said he would.

David Cameron’s highest profile promise is of course ‘No ifs, no buts, no third runway’.  As he appears to stand on the brink of an about turn on Heathrow he would do well to reflect on the lessons of Tony Blair and Nick Clegg.

Dave – how do you want to be remembered?  Do you want to be judged on your policies or simply remembered as the latest in a line of political leaders who broke their promises.  The choice is yours.


What if Davies got his sums wrong……

by John Stewart

The Airports Commission recommended a third runway at Heathrow largely on the basis of the economic benefits it would bring to the country.  However, over the last few weeks evidence has emerged that the economic case for a third runway is much less convincing than it may have appeared.

What strengthens the argument is that much of this evidence, whilst unearthed by Gatwick Airport and others, is contained in the report of Airports Commission itself.

We now know:

  • The number of domestic airports linked to Heathrow will fall from 7 to just 4.
  • A 3rd runway will provide no more than 12 additional long-haul destinations by 2050

The case for a new runway at Heathrow always rested on the fact it would significantly improve connectivity to the emerging economies of the world and that it would connect more UK airports to Heathrow.  The facts suggest otherwise.  Indeed, a second runway at Gatwick would add 10 new long-haul destinations at a fraction of the cost to the taxpayer.

We also now know:

  • The £147 billion the Commission said a 3rd runway would bring to the national economy over 60 years is likely to be way too high.

Its own experts Professor Peter Mackie and Brian Pearce told the Commission that the method of modelling used by consultants PwC, which produced this figure, faced “a number of difficulties” and was about three times higher than traditional estimates.

Using the more traditional modelling methods, and assuming carbon trading is in place, the benefits of a third runway over a 60 year period fall to £69 billion.  A second runway at Gatwick would bring in just over £60 billion.

But, if the costs of the disbenefits (such as noise and emissions) and the costs of delivering the third runway are included, the economic benefits fall to £11.8 billion over 60 years.  The Commission admits Gatwick would be close behind at £10.8 billion.  (Gatwick Airport believes this is an underestimate as it argues the Commission has underestimated the number of passengers it would attract).

A recent report from the Aviation Environment Federation puts the benefits of a third runway even lower as it believes the Commission hasn’t fully factored in the costs of climate emissions.

But, even on the Commission’s own figures, the economic benefits of a third runway at Heathrow could be much less than has been commonly assumed.

Food for much thought for the cabinet committee which is assessing the Commission’s recommendation.    

Davies Report: a game-changer on noise policy…whatever happens to new runways

The Airport Commission’s report could be a game-changer.  But not necessarily in the most obvious way.  New runways dominated the headlines last week when its chairman, Sir Howard Davies, published the report.  Inevitably so.  Gatwick or Heathrow.  It is a big story.  And, if the report does result in a new runway being built in London and the South East, it will be very big indeed.

But Davies was also asked to look at aviation noise policy.  And it is here he has developed proposals which, if implemented, could be game-changing. Indeed, even if they are not all taken forward, he has prised open a door that had been fairly firmly closed for a long time.  Importantly, though some of his proposals are Heathrow-specific, many are UK-wide.

The most eye-catching of his proposals is a legally-binding ban on scheduled night flights between 11.30pm and 6am if a third runway is built at Heathrow.  He argues that the new runway would provide the capacity to relocate the 16 flights which currently land between 4.30am and 6am to just after 6 o’clock.  The Commission looked at the experience of Frankfurt which banned flights between midnight and 5am after its controversial fourth runway opened in 2011.  It found that the economy of Frankfurt did not crumble; nor did Lufhanza’s profits tumble.  This reinforces an earlier finding in work done by Tim Leunig for the Policy Institute that a ban on night flights at Heathrow is operationally achievable and not damaging to the economy. (That is not the case of a ban until 7am). Heathrow has not yet committed to a ban.  It will need to speak to its biggest customer, British Airways, but, if it was the price of getting a new runway, I’m pretty certain they would introduce it.  And, if Heathrow banned night flights, there would be pressure on other airports in the UK and in the rest of Europe to do much the same.

Davies has bought into and promoted the concept of respite.  This is the idea where residents under flight paths are guaranteed, wherever possible, predicable breaks from the noise.  He has made it a condition of a new runway going ahead at Heathrow but his clear endorsement of the concept will mean that other airports will be under pressure to introduce it.  This is, of course, particularly timely given the reorganization of flight paths that will take place across the UK over the next five years – regardless of what happens on runways – in order to allow more effective use to be made of airspace.

Davies has also the promoted the idea of an independent noise authority.  The details of this body have yet to be worked out but its main role would be to ensure fair play between local communities, the airport and other key decision-makers.  Heathrow has worked hard in recent years to improve its working relationship with the local community but this is not the case at many of the smaller airports in the country.  An independent noise authority would have a particularly important role to play at these airports.

Finally, post-Davies, the Government and others will struggle to go back to the old, discredited way of measuring noise annoyance.  This sounds technical but it is critical in getting policy-making correct.  If the level of annoyance is underestimated, the impact of  new runways or changed flight paths on the population would be skewed.  The Government’s preferred noise contour – known as 57 LAeq – excluded places like Putney and Fulham as areas where people are significantly disturbed by aircraft noise from Heathrow.  Simply not reality!  Davies has recommended that airports and the Government use a suite of metrics to convey and more accurate and realistic picture of where noise occurs.

HACAN worked constructively with the Airports Commission in the work it was doing on noise.  In recent years we have also worked closely with Heathrow on noise matters.  Things are changing.  Whatever happens to runways as a result of the Davies report it has left a potentially game-changing legacy with its work on noise.



A memo to air traffic controllers


by John Stewart

 Put simply:  you need to be more transparent in the way you deal with residents.  That’s not say to that your organisation – NATS – is not tying to improve.  It is.  It is a world away from what it was like nearly 20 years ago when I first started with HACAN.  From memory, it was the best part of a decade before we even got a response before we even got a response to our letters and our queries.

Presumably NATS felt they were the experts and they didn’t need to engage with the likes of us.  A skill, a pride in your job, particularly in one as important as ensuring the safety of aircraft, is admirable.  But that pride can, and did, lead to a feeling of superiority, an air of arrogance.   Residents were left desperate and angry as flight paths changed over their heads.

There are signs of change and there are individuals within the organisation who take a very different approach and are pressing NATS as a whole to do so.  But old habits die hard.  Only last year Heathrow was furious with NATS that they hadn’t been told about flight path changes that had taken place west of Heathrow.

The recent flight path changes around Gatwick and the proposed concentrated flights for Londo nCityAirport are driven by NATS.  The changes have prompted residents around Gatwick, Heathrow and City airports to come together in an unprecedented way to deliver a joint letter to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin calling for residents to be centrally involved in any flight path changes that may be proposed.

Because most of NATS is still too remote there seems to be a failure to understand the impact flight paths can have on residents.  What appear to be small operational changes to NATS can have a significant impact on residents on the ground.

I was in Kennington Park, near the Oval, on Friday evening.  Eighteen miles from Heathrow we were bombarded with planes, most of them between 3500 and 4,000 feet.  The next day I checked the flight paths on Webtrak.  Sure enough, virtually every plane landing at Heathrow was coming over or close to the park.

Kennington Park has been badly overflown for well over a decade now.  But this was concentration taken to a whole new level.  Few planes further south going over Brixton and Streatham as they used to. And residents are noticing.  HACAN has started getting emails from the area on a regularly basis.

It’s true that Kennington is not bombarded like this throughout the day but it gets no period of predicable respite. As far as residents are concerned, things have changed big-time.  And not a word from NATS.   The internal revolution has still some way to go.

Why this election result makes it less likely a 3rd runway will be built at Heathrow


by John Stewart

Boris Johnson said in his acceptance speech after being elected MP for Uxbridge that he would join John McDonnell and “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway.”

John McDonnell, re-elected as the MP for the neighbouring constituency of Hayes and Harlington, had said in his speech “Whoever’s in government, if they come back to try and build a third runway at Heathrow, we will resist on a cross-party basis, and I expect the person who will be elected to Uxbridge tonight to follow through the commitment that was given by John Randall and join with me in lying down in front of those bulldozers if they come.”

Both men feel very strongly that a third runway should not be built.  And it is this that could make it very hard for the new Government to give the green-light for a new runway. Boris, too, passionately believes there are other ways forward.

Both are willing to be hugely troublesome over a third runway.  There are doing much, much more than going through the motions of opposing because it is an unpopular issue locally.  And they are not alone.  Famously, Zac Goldsmith has said he will stand down and fight a by-election if a Conservative Government goes for a third runway runway.  (In this election he increased his majority from 4,000 to an astonishing 23,000).  And Putney MP Justine Greening had to be moved from her position as Transport Secretary because of her principled opposition to a new runway.

No Government would want all this troublesome and potentially embarrassing opposition any runway plans.  Particularly when they know other “big beasts” in the Conservative Party are also against a third runway.  Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary in the last Government,Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and probably also Theresa May, Home Secretary and Maidenhead MP.

 There is also cross-party opposition from MPs around Heathrow.  Windsor MP Adam Afriyie has been a consistent and very public opponent of Heathrow expansion.  Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter resigned his government position when Labour was in power over the issue.  Ruth Cadbury, newly-elected Labour MP in Brentford and Isleworth, has a history of effective opposition from her days on Hounslow Council.  Ealing and Acton’s new Labour MP Rupa Huq, is against  As were the Conservative MPs they replaced, Mary Macleod and Angie Bray, respectively.  Tania Mathias, who defeated Vince Cable, made Heathrow an issue in her campaigning.

Cable himself of course was staunchly opposed as was his compatriot, Ed Davey, who lost his seat in Kingston.  Pressure from Lib Dem heavyweights will be missed but, the way the results panned out generally suggest to me that that it will be increasingly difficult to contemplate a new runway at Heathrow.

This could be the election that finally killed off a third runway at Heathrow.



Why Schiphol will never become ‘Heathrow’s third runway’

by John Stewart

28th April 2015

We routinely are told that, if Heathrow doesn’t expand, people from other UK airports will choose to fly to Schiphol to interchange on to a long-distance flight.  The CEO of Schiphol has even rather cheekily called it ‘Heathrow’s third runway’.  He knows full well it can never be that because Schiphol has almost reached capacity.

It is not that Schiphol lacks runway space.  It has five runways (six if you include one for very small planes) and fewer flights than Heathrow.  The capacity constraint is down to the strict rules which exist about which runways can be used and when.  There are tight noise regulations in place which mean that all five runways are never in use at any one time.  Indeed, rarely are more than three of the runways used at once.  And the use of the two runways which go over densely-populated areas is avoided whenever possible.

 But here’s the big reason why Schiphol can never become London’s third runway.  It has almost reached its permissible noise limits.  The airport has a complex way of regulating noise:  “the present system as from 2005 consists of 35 points around Schiphol where the actual noise of passing planes is physically measured and added up to annual totals per point. If a total at a certain point exceeds its legal maximum, the relating runway can no longer be used and traffic should be diverted to alternative runways. The maximum capacity of this system is some 480,000 air traffic movements each year.”  You can read more about this in the paper Noise Reduction at Schiphol:Noise reduction Schiphol  

 The system is being altered so that possibly 510,000 flights will be able to use the airport each year.  But that’s it.  No more.  And not significantly greater than the 480,000 cap at the two-runway Heathrow.  The trips from Edinburgh,Manchester or Newcastle to Schiphol to interchange will have a finite limit. 

Schiphol is looking to get round its limits by ‘outsourcing’ perhaps as many as 70,000 low-cost, leisure flights to the smaller airports Netherlands.  If  – and it still very much is ‘if’ that happens – it will free up some space at Schiphol but not enough to dent the myth that Schiphol can ever become Heathrow’s third runway.  Gatwick maybe.  Stansted possibly.  Even Birmingham or Boris Island.  But not Schiphol.  The Dutch take their noise responsibilities far too seriously for that to happen. 

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!