Why the Airspace Policy Consultation is potentially a radical, breakthrough document


by John Stewart

It is in danger of being forgotten.  Yet the Airspace Policy Consultation contains a raft of proposals which will radically change the way the aviation industry does business.   

All eyes are focused on the parallel third runway consultation.  Understandably so.  Any new runway built anywhere arouses strong emotions.  And at Heathrow the fears are particularly acute.  Already the its aircraft fly over many, many more people than any other airport in Europe.  There are deep concerns about the impact of a quarter of a million more planes a year.

But can I take you back twenty years to the late 1990s to illustrate the depth of the changes being proposed in the Airspace Policy Consultation. They were dark days.  Major changes were made to the way planes flew into Heathrow…..without a word of consultation, far less compensation.  Outdated metrics were the norm.  Respite was limited.  Heathrow sought to infiltrate and undermine community groups. (I met the infiltrators years later!).  The CAA and NATS were remote and unresponsive.  And the Department for Transport sought no real engagement.

The consultation on Airspace Policy is potentially a breakthrough document.  It contains many measures that many organizations have been campaigning for; in the case of HACAN for nigh on two decades.

Perhaps the most dramatic is the proposal to sideline the 57dbLAeq metric as the indicator of the ‘onset of community annoyance’ and replace it with 54dbLAeq and 51dbLAeq metrics.  These are very similar to those recommended by the World Health Organisation.  The consultation document also recommends the use of N60 and N70 metrics.  All this is not perfect- we still need, for example, an additional metric which measures the noise only on the days when the planes are overhead rather than just relying on an annual average – but it is a bold step forward; the biggest in over 20 years.

The consultation also endorses respite as a key option open to airports.  Gone are the days when concentration was the order of the day.  I’ve written many times about the importance of respite to local communities.  Providing it will not always be easy.  In particular, it will be challenging for NATS as it will require air traffic controllers to take a more creative approach to their work but it is now embedded as a key component of Government policy.

The Independent Noise Authority is also central to the new approach Government proposes to take.  The details of the new Authority have yet to be worked out.  Some will argue it should have more teeth. Some of the airports and the airlines will be wary of it.  But it will happen.

For the first time communities will be entitled to be consulted when changes – large or small – are made to airspace and flight paths.  Campaign groups will be pressing hard for the engagement to be meaningful, recognising the devil is in the detail of a proposal that has yet to be fully developed.

And that’s a key point generally.  To fulfill it’s potential, the final paper the Government produces has got to get the detail right.  The detail on community engagement; the detail on compensation; the detail on the Noise Authority; the detail on the balance between aviation and community interests.

The Airports Commission has faced a lot of criticism from a number of quarters but there can be little doubt it brought a fresh pair of eyes to key aspects of noise policy.  Civil servants within the Department of Transport, with the backing of the aviation minister Lord Ahmad, have built upon the Commission’s work to produce a set of proposals which don’t  deserve to get lost in the publicity surrounding the consultation about a third runway at Heathrow.

The Airspace Policy consultation can be found at:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/588186/uk-airspace-policy-a-framework-for-balanced-decisions-on-the-design-and-use-of-airspace-web-version.pdf


One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Guest blog: Chris Keady


One flew over the cuckoo nest, then another hundred, and another, and another………

The classic film ‘one flew over the cuckoo nest’ provided a stark insight into mental illness and treatment in the 70’s. Today, our approach to Mental Health, and particularly mental illness, has progressed significantly. So too has the world of aviation, and increasingly its growing concern with aviation noise, and latterly, in some quarters at least, good mental health.

Genuine concern for mental health of overflown in UK or pie in the sky?

Currently our skies are being ‘divvied up’ to allow significant growth in the number of aircraft using it, now, and well into the future. These changes have been described by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as ‘once in a lifetime’. It follows, therefore, that the greatest care and attention should be applied to designing and managing this transition. This is especially so as there is absolutely no chance of a second a chance, and some peoples’ lives are therefore literally hanging by a thread, depending on a reasonable outcome.

But aviation policy has shifted towards compressing noise footprints (the area over which noise pollutes) making them smaller, but more concentrated, and then compounding this by concentrating the noise on the ‘fewest people’. While such an approach is considered more efficient and effective by the aviation industry, they don’t have to ‘live’ with the downside – the misery they can sometimes create. Sure, impressive benefits can be listed but for the first time overflown or more heavily overflown, some may lose any right to the quiet enjoyment of their home, their physical and mental health may be adversely affected, life expectancy reduced, and home potentially blighted. Admittedly this may only a minority, but it is a significant minority, and one that needs to be properly addressed.

In addition, no one knows what ‘dose’ is safe! Is it 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 aircraft overhead per day? Then the next day, and the next, and the next. If you survive you’ll be allowed some days off, before it starts all over again. This is an example of what respite might look like. There are, of course other permutations, and we’ll return to this shortly.

Unfortunately, if you care to think about it, this Government policy is neither fair nor ethical. It needs to be more flexible and fairer, paying compensation where people are significantly impacted by airspace change. This is a government issue as much as it an aviation issue. It is also time decent people spoke up before it’s too late.

Noise sewers – twenty first century apartheid

The term ‘noise sewers’ was recently coined and used I believe by the Chief Executive of the CAA to describe the undesirable impact of overconcentrated flight paths, and therefore noise pollution (one must not forget particulates and other environmental pollution either). He went on to explain that such overconcentration was rarely necessary, and therefore implied that they shouldn’t feature in airspace (re)design.

Certainly, this was making the ‘right kind of noise’ with the significantly overflown, and soon to be significantly overflown communities. No doubt it was sincere. But it is very unclear whether the aviation industry’s feet are yet following the words (industry/organisation cultures are hard to shift). This expectation needs to be delivered.

John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, [Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise] has fought tirelessly to reduce aviation noise, and more recently to raise the profile and issues around mental health -providing a platform which has allowed me to share my insights and ideas. He first coined the term ‘noise ghettos’ to describe the ‘locked in’ communities deluged with aviation noise. The term ‘ghetto’ hinted at the injustice of this ‘fencing in’ and the denudation of human rights.

This injustice still exists in places and while respite may provide a break, and a genuine solution for many, like most things there is no ‘silver bullet’. In providing respite, noise is effectively relocated elsewhere, but in a highly concentrated and targeted way, if policy makers get their way. Unaddressed this may cause blight and physical, and/or mental ill health. This is why the infrastructure and management systems to manage it scrupulously fairly must be in place. Compensation should also be available in exceptional cases.

There is no safe noise dose, no research to establish what might be safe, so ’noise overdoses’ are likely to occur in some cases with potentially catastrophic effects on mental and physical health. Also there may be no Independent Noise Ombudsman, who one can go to, who could adjudicate on the impact of such changes or to provide redress. Yet this is what was unanimously called for at the Let Britain Fly Aircraft Noise Summit 2014.

Why should decent people have to lose out, through no fault of their own? The risk with airspace (flightpath) change, currently subject to DfT consultation, is that as things stand one may be excluded from any form of redress, yet have their life and enjoyment of their  home profoundly negatively affected. This is so very wrong. It doesn’t happen with HS2 or any major road scheme does it? Why should the impact of ‘once in a lifetime airspace change’, be treated any differently to new runway impacts??? Peoples’ lives are at stake here, including the sort of people, in many cases, who have done the hard yards, paid into the system, taken zilch out, and put something back into society. Please pause and do the right thing.

Consider going from few aircraft flying overhead, to perhaps 400 or more per day (including very early and late), flying low, at perhaps 90 second intervals. Would you like it? Would you think it was right? Of course not, no one in their right mind would. So why allow it? So why not do something about it? It doesn’t need to be so hardcore concentrated, it can, and should be diluted, where necessary.

Give us a break!

Respite  which has been briefly touched upon, is the latest offer from the aviation industry. The idea, in essence, is that by providing the overflown with breaks from noise this will improve their quality of life. In many heavily overflown areas it is understandably welcomed with open arms. This isn’t hard to understand, and there can be no argument about this. The downside is that for breaks to be provided other new or existing areas need to be overflown – noise will be redistributed. This will need to be resolved fairly and sensitively.

Respite has also gained popularity on the back of the NORAH study into the effects of concentrated flightpaths at Frankfurt airport. It was found that concentrated flightpaths led to depression in some overflown people, and that respite was valued by those heavily overflown. Notably, the impact on pre-existing severe mental health conditions was outside the scope of this study, but other European research suggests that such conditions increase the susceptibility to harmful effects from such noise. This is a major ‘blind spot’ (and risk) for current UK airspace redesign, aviation and public health policy generally.

It is crucial, therefore, that the risks inherent in this approach are fully evaluated, understood, and communicated. Above all those who will be expected to carry significant new noise, should be assisted, where necessary with appropriate noise reduction initiatives, and in exceptional cases, assisted to move on. There are many innovative schemes that can be developed to deliver this, so people are not otherwise ‘locked in’ by a sky of noise. I presented the ‘Respite Plus’ solution at the House of Commons seminar on Aviation Noise and Mental Health 2016, as in some exceptional cases respite alone, will be inadequate. It’s time has come.

Far too many flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Having fought back from the abyss of severe mental ill health, I have since 2014 been privileged to have shared several platforms with John Stewart addressing aviation noise, and in my case it’s relationship with mental health. It has been essential, therapeutic, and I had hoped it would make a difference.

I have pitched at the GLA, House of Commons and even on BBC radio 4. I flew the flag for the discounted and unrepresented, and wore my heart on my sleeve, saying it as it was.

Not once, however, did anyone from the main policy or regulatory agencies stop to have a word, or a conversation about the ideas ventilated at the events or in subsequent in blogs, which attracted a lot of attention in the UK and abroad. I regret this, and I also find it ominous, as there is currently a DFT consultation on airspace change underway. It is why I have been forced in this blog to discuss the undiscussable.

It so easy to selfishly park noise on others, especially in a highly concentrated way. If this occurs at least ensure that those affected are adequately protected, and give them the means of redress. Don’t pretend that noise is no big deal and that periodic breaks will ‘sort it’ for everyone. It certainly will help many, but not all. Some with noise sensitive illnesses may be so exhausted, that by the time a break comes round they are unable to benefit from it.

I have also encountered some other excellent people on my journey including Ruth Cadbury (MP) and Dr Tania Mathias (MP), amongst others – people who cared, in positions of responsibility, and who really understood and were trying to promote the mental health agenda. Also, Dirk Schreckenberg a leading researcher, expert and commentator on aviation noise and mental health (associated with the NORAH research), and who has done a great deal to get people to sit up, think, and do something about the subject.

Even Matt Gorman (Heathrow Airports Sustainability and Environment Director), I would include on my long list. I have sought to persuade him that Heathrow should be world leaders in developing products and services to assist the ‘noise vulnerable’ in living, rather than ‘existing’, with aircraft noise – there are so many gaps and opportunities at present, which are ‘win wins’, particularly around identifying and meeting such needs.

There is also so much that can, and should be done, if the Government, and Local Authorities, and Public Health Bodies focused on this important, but ‘at risk’ constituency. Why then don’t we get on and do it and Save Our Souls?

One flew over the cuckoo nest, then 100, then another and another ……and the next day and the next……Why then ask ‘can aviation noise cause depression/severe depression, or mental ill health’? Just ask yourself, ‘does a duck quack’?

Why flight paths are missing from the consultation on 3rd runway


by John Stewart

The lack of information about where the new flights will be is emerging as a key criticism of the Department for Transport’s current consultation into the third runway at Heathrow.  Commonsense would suggest that flight paths should be an integral part of any consultation on any new runway.  After all, most people are pretty agnostic about a new runway.  They only get interested if they hear that the runway will mean flights or more flights over their homes.  Yet read the Department’s consultation document or go to one of its public exhibitions and information about flight paths is missing.

I’m not sure this is a deliberate plot to minimize the opposition to a third runway by withholding flight path information from people.  It is more the result of very bad timing.  The third runway consultation is being run in parallel to a national consultation on air space policy.  The latter is being driven by a worldwide plan to modernize and make more efficient use of airspace.  This would save the airlines money, time and fuel as well as cutting their climate change emissions.  Also, it would allow airports to operate more flexibly and effectively. The consultation is asking for views on the principles which should inform airspace policy – for example, should flight paths be concentrated or dispersed; how much importance do people attach to respite; what would meaningful respite would look like.

And therein lies the problem for the third runway consultation.  Until these key principles have been decided neither the Department for Transport (DfT) nor Heathrow can know for sure where the new flight paths for a third runway will be.  Indeed, they cannot predict what will happen to flight paths even if Heathrow remains a two-runway airport.

So why, you might reasonably ask, did the DfT not consult on airspace policy well before the consultation on the third runway?  The civil servants were keen to do so.  Ministers, maybe understandably but unfortunately, have spent the last two years so focused on the toxic question of where a new runway should go that they allowed a backlog of other matters to build up.

Heathrow Airport itself is planning to start consulting in the autumn on the principles behind any flight path changes and to involve local communities in the process.  And in 2018 flight paths will form part of its detailed plans for a third runway if Parliament approves the new runway.

Through no fault of Heathrow this will be the first time that many, many people will be aware that a third runway flight path could affect them.  I suspect there will be real anger.  The fact is Ministers, by refusing to sort out flight path policy well in advance of the consultation, have caused an unholy mess.

The DfT appointed the former judge, Sir Jeremy Sullivan, to ensure the third runway consultation was fair and reasonable.  I trust he will have a few choice words for ministers on the absence of flight paths when he submits his report on the process in early summer.


Mental Health and Flight Paths: what is required

Guest blog

by Chris Keady

16th January 2017

Transforming the way we deal with mental health problems          Aspiration ready for take-off?

This (welcome) aspiration from Prime Minister Theresa May comes in the same week in which she acknowledges that “for too long mental illness has been something of a hidden injustice in [Britain]” and she therefore wants to use the power of government …. to transform the way mental health problems [are dealt with] right across society”.

Why should this matter? Well it matters, if justice, humanity, or equality count for anything, and “if lives are not to be destroyed” (the PM’s words, not mine). Bottom line, therefore, we need to see the intentions embedded in the practical implementation of public policy decisions, and in meaningful preventative measures, not gimmicks, which can, in the long run, save money and lives (for example, there are over 6,000 deaths by suicide each year in the UK costing in excess of £10bn)

But what do ‘mental health problems’ look like?

There are a myriad of mental health conditions which affect people in the UK, and indirectly, their families and loved ones, in often very challenging and cruel ways. Many are treatable, some aren’t, with suicide accounting for more than 6,000 lives a year. However, for the purposes of this blog I shall concentrate on depression/severe depression, as it is something I know about, and which is relevant in the context of aviation noise/airspace change. Please let me explain.

A decade ago I was a ‘car crash’. My mental health had unravelled like a ball of wool bringing me to my knees. I languished on secure hospital wards as I failed to respond to treatment for severe depression which was accompanied by several complications. I was in the bowels of hell.

I was reduced to a shuffling husk of the man who had once been so capable and accomplished. I had no hope.

My mind had become my prison. Not only was I afraid of other patients, but I was also afraid of most staff. On my first night on a new ward, having been shifted from another hospital, I had barricaded myself into my room by dismantling parts of a wardrobe: I can still remember the fear. Every night I would lay awake waiting for something awful to happen once lights went out. Every night I would hear the roar of what I imagined were furnaces into which patients were dispatched….

My family eventually saved me by providing a supportive and caring environment, taking me home when everyone else had given up. I was still very far from well, and it was thought that I may never recover. Then the ‘hard yards’ began, but there was always someone to pick me up, to reassure me. One step forward, two back sometimes. Small victories on good days, such as walking to the bottom of the road by myself and coming back unscathed, swapping Velcro trainers for lace ups (laces were considered a suicide risk at one time), going on public transport and finding one’s way home without a crisis, going to the local shops or the local park. All this would be routine for most people, but for me they were ‘Everests’ – giant steps, on the road to recovery. Eventually I returned to work, helped by a compassionate employer, supportive colleagues, and a thoughtful and extended rehabilitation programme.

I am desperate to stay well – who wouldn’t in the circumstances? Besides the prospects of recovery from a further relapse are unlikely. But I am now alarmed by the possibility of what I‘ve described as ‘the mental health car crash’ that airspace change (a national programme) may unleash, unless great care is taken.  Such airspace change has been described as a ’once in a lifetime opportunity by the Civil Aviation Agency’, and so it is. But the opportunity must not be driven purely by economic interests, and it requires a more balanced, humane approach than that currently signalled by the industry. 

Other concerns

I have several, including:

  • Wrong balance

 If the wrong balance is struck in the case of over concentrating aircraft and noise along narrow corridors and selective strands of communities. In such a case noise may be excessively compressed and concentrated on parts of communities, instead of sharing it around more equitably (dilution), where feasible.

  • Fair flight paths who decides

 Who calibrates flight paths? Is – to use skiing terms – the flight path a ‘black run’ or a novice, significantly easier, ’green’ run? How are they equalised?  I’ll have a ‘green run’ by the way, please, if I must have one at all.

  • Consultation

 The idea that one can consult noise away is flawed. While it may help if designed and implemented well, it ultimately merely shifts noise around. There is, therefore, a real risk that the weakest, those who are not well represented, either individually or collectively, or those with noise sensitive health conditions, will end up under ‘noise ghettos’ that airspace change may have had the opportunity to design ou

  • Independent Noise Regulator

 There needs to be an independent noise regulator as there is too much at stake. The regulator needs to adjudicate on flight path changes, amongst other things, and command the trust and respect of the overflown – the most important stakeholders of all.

  • Mental illness (depression) from over concentrated aviation noise

The use of concentrated flight paths at Frankfurt Airport gave rise to significant levels of depression among the overflown. The Norah Report suggests that respite may help. This is very welcome, as it is a very under researched and under recognised area. For example, what dose is safe?

It is unclear, though, if anyone studied had or was prone to severe pre-existing depression or a history of such, and how they were affected, or helped. I’m mentioning this here, not as a ‘show stopper’ or ‘spoiler’, but genuinely because this is potentially a high-risk category. Such ‘hotspots’ are likely to require further treatment where they are identified.

Every effort should be made to use continuous climb outs, curved approaches, and other techniques to mitigate noise, also.

  • Least harm versus fewest people

The present approach is to design flight paths to affect fewest people. This should be used as a rule of thumb perhaps but not an inviolable principle; since minimising people overflown maximises the impact on those that are. To be candid, this is hardly fair, and therefore greater flexibility is likely to cause least harm (noise doses will be less concentrated).

Green shoots?

John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, has initiated and/or collaborated on a range of important initiatives over the past 12 months. Notably these include:

  • HACAN’s work in promoting awareness of aviation noise and its impact on mental health through seminal blogs and the ‘high’ of a shared platform with the Aviation Environment Federation (Aef) at the House of Commons, ‘Aviation Noise and Mental Health’, event (July 2016);
  • HACAN and Heathrow Airport promoting the role of an independent noise regulator; and
  • Respite studies to inform thinking and debate around airspace change, its potential application and possible benefits.

This is to be applauded, and while nothing is ‘settled’ the work-in-progress could contribute towards a portfolio solution (usually there is no panacea). Such a portfolio might embrace further mitigation opportunities, pilot ‘quiet home’ schemes, and, in exceptional circumstances’ supported exit strategies for the seriously health affected, if a more widely available scheme is unavailable. These last few points may lead to eyes rolling and guffawing in some quarters, but those reacting in such a way are likely to be those who do not have to involuntarily consume what’s ‘dished up’ above their heads. There is a raft of ways, some innovative, to address this, with thumbnail outlines provided in HACAN guest blogs, and an entreaty to the Mayor London.

A message to the Prime Minister

Your statements about mental health in the past week have been enormously welcome, and frank. You have struck a common chord in so accurately pointing out that mental health is an area which remains stigmatised, and a hidden injustice for far too long.

Acknowledging this, and that ‘lives can be destroyed’, is refreshing, and I sense genuinely sincere, as is the commitment to use the power of government to transform the way mental health problems are dealt with across society.

The litmus test, however, must be to see the intentions embedded in the practical implementation of public policy decisions, and meaningful preventative measures, not gimmicks, which can, in the long run, save money and lives.

In the context of aviation, and airspace change policy/strategy, therefore, one will  need to see clear, practical measures designed to prevent mental illness, both generally, and more selectively for any high-risk groups.

This will not compromise the drive for economic growth but it will genuinely show that we are a ‘Great’ Britain and a ‘shared society’ that is not only ‘open for business’, but is one which can, and does, look out for, and after, the vulnerable.

Therefore may we please push the envelope of possibility, and strain every sinew to deliver fair and appropriate solutions for those who may otherwise be expected to pay for aviation expansion and airspace change with their lives.

What if a crash did happen over London……


Guest Blog

The Go Around by Ylva French

 The Go Around is a story for the 21st century where millions of people enjoy the ease and pleasure of air travel but also live in cities and towns below busy flight paths.

Every day some 1,300 aircraft land and take off from Heathrow Airport (as many of you are well aware).  Most days I can see those aircraft from my flat as they descend in an orderly line over central London, heading west.  It’s a miracle that it hardly ever goes wrong.

After all so many things could happen from human error and mechanical failure to terrorist attacks and – in the last year a new hazard – drones.  Several years ago I had the idea to write a fictional story about an accident on the flight path and what it would mean on the ground.  I finished the story and put it away.  A visit to the Heathrow Control Tower in the spring of last year brought it all back and I decided to rework the story and publish it as an eBook.

 It is a sunny afternoon in August and conditions at Heathrow Airport are perfect with aircraft on the flight path approaching the runway in a steady stream.  The unthinkable happens – two aircraft collide over London’s western suburbs. The peace and enjoyment of a summer Saturday is shattered, as London’s emergency services respond to the disastrous consequences.

 Quite a sombre subject, you will agree, as inevitably it involves many people dying and others suffering injury and loss.  But there are miracles too, in this story, many individual acts of consideration and bravery as well as an unlikely report that there are two survivors from one of the planes. Is that possible?

As the world’s media gather at the disaster centre in a town hall in South West London, the quest starts to find out what went wrong.  Somebody must surely be at fault – or is it just the systems pushed to their limit?

All the characters and events in this book are purely imaginary.

The Go Around by Ylva French is available from the Amazon Kindle Store, www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com


2017 won’t all be about a 3rd runway

2017 won’t all be about a third runway at Heathrow.  A new runway will feature heavily in a Government consultation paper – the National Policy Statement – expected to be published in late January.  But by the end of the year the Government also expects to have consulted on a range of national issues, including noise and climate change, with a view to publishing an Aviation White Paper in 2018.

It will start with noise.  Alongside its consultation on a third runway, the Department for Transport is looking to publish its draft Airspace Strategy.  But this will be about more than airspace; it will cover all aspects of aviation noise.

Across the world airspace is being modernized.  Nations are taking advantage of the fact that new computer technology can guide aircraft much more precisely in order to make more efficient use of airspace.  It can save airlines time, money and fuel as well as reduce their CO2 emissions.

By 2024 all European nations – whether inside or outside the EU – will be expected to modernize their airspace.

The Airspace Strategy will set out these issues and the options around modernization – and particularly its impact on flight paths – open to the Government, airlines, airports and air traffic controllers.

A key issue for residents will be around the concentration of flight paths.  The new precision technology makes concentration much more feasible.  Air traffic controllers find it easier to manage and it has obvious benefits for airlines.

Until now the UK Government has tended to favour concentration of flight paths, with respite permitted as an option in certain cases.  The concept of respite is likely to feature more heavily in the new strategy.

At an airport such as Heathrow concentrating all the flights over particular communities would create noise ghettos.  It would simply be unacceptable and would create the sort of furore that has been seen at a number of American airports in recent years.

During the consultation period Heathrow Airport is expecting to publish the study it has commissioned on what meaningful respite would look like.  It is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever undertaken.

However, the consultation will seek views on other aspects of aviation noise.  For example, it will ask about the best way of measuring noise annoyance.  It is likely to move away from reliance on the 57 LAeq decibel contour as the point at which community annoyance is said to set in and rely instead on a suite of metrics to measure noise annoyance.  HACAN – and others – have been consistently campaigning for this for many years and indeed decades.

The consultation will also seek views on an Independent Aviation Noise Authority – a concept we have promoted for many years.

This consultation, leading to the White Paper, will set out aviation noise policy for many years to come.  As campaigners, we have the awesome responsibility but also the great opportunity to influence the policy; to it include many of the measures we have been lobbying for over many years.  The White Paper will not result in the immediate improve to the noise climate we all want to see but it does give us a once-in-a-generation chance to have a real input into the country’s aviation noise policy.

Why having good mental health isn’t a right anymore?


Guest blog:  The author of this powerful story about the impact concentrated flight path on his mental health has requested we do not reveal his identity.

If 10 years ago, when I brought my house, someone had said to me one day you will be writing a blog on the effect of airplane noise on your mental health I may have paused for a thought, but after a mere second into that through would have completely dismissed it. Surely, the government would have to protect us from such a ludicrous suggestion, wouldn’t they?

10 years later, it turns out I would have been wrong. Not when it comes to the airspace anyhow. We all know the government wants more planes in the sky. Theresa May wants to let the rest of the world know “the UK is open for business”, but no matter the cost to the health of the public it seems.

I don’t want to get into the politics of what is right for the UK or not, I just want my pain to go away. The feeling of helplessness, anxiety and feeling trapped are now what I feel when I lay in bed at night.

Before, I get too deep into how it feels to be depressed I would like to let you know how I became this way. The Department of Transport in 2013 made the decision to reduce the number of people effected by plane noise and pollution. Sounds great, right? What did they do, reduce the number of night flights or reduce the number of flights in general? No? Go on tell me, I sense you are thinking. They made the decision to concentrate all the flights over one area of a flight path. One flight path is around 3km wide, so all the planes that used that 3km wide flight path are now flying within a very small narrow corridor.

The issue is now the technology used is so perfect a plane will follow the plane before, in exactly the same place and so on. Yes, on paper I guess it looked like it worked; less people should notice air traffic noise. I am not sure they noticed it before anyhow, I didn’t and I have lived in Hounslow, Twickenham, Teddington and Richmond before I brought a house 10 miles away from Heathrow. Their efforts to reduce the noise have in fact made matters so much worse for the fewer people under these flight paths than they ever were for the people they have reduced it for.  So, now you know, I live under one of these concentrated flight paths.

So, back to mental health.  It started off me being woken up by late flying planes and generally being upset with the increase in noise. I started to call Heathrow and ask what has happened, not knowing what a flight path was; I would ask questions like “have you changed the flight paths?” to which they would reply “no”. They were technically right and played off my lack of knowledge on flight paths.

It continued to get worse and worse, so bad in fact I had to leave my job in the city. I just wasn’t sleeping and didn’t understand why. Heathrow told me they hadn’t changed anything; it must be me, I thought.

This year the concentrated flight path got too much for me, one night I woken up at 3am and started to have a panic attract – it hit me, I had cracked. The signs where there, I had started to feel anxious about going to bed. I was becoming down at the thought of not sleeping. I would wait until I knew the last plane had gone over before I even went to the bedroom. I never had a panic attract before, I couldn’t breathe, my heart was beating so fast. I started to shout out “it is the noise, please stop the noise”.

When we are on an easterly wind, this is when the planes are bad for me. I would now watch the weather on the news. Please don’t be on an easterly wind tomorrow, I would pray, oh thank god no easterly wind.  “Now for the weekend’s weather, we have a strong wind coming from the east on Saturday” the weather presentation would say. Oh shit, oh shit. My panic was setting in, it was only Thursday but I knew the weekend would be none stop noise. That night I would lie in bed, with my eyes filling up with tears knowing the noise was coming. That humming sound you hear in the distances that turns into a thunder across your house. Soon that will be over me and it will not stop until Heathrow want it to stop.

Sounds bad, but unbelievably it is getting worse.

One month ago, we had 2 weeks or so of easterly winds. This meant I had planes over me from 6am to 11.30pm (most nights it would be in fact midnight or later, due to delays at Heathrow). I broke down. I started to hit things, I couldn’t control myself. I wanted to kill myself to get away from the noise. This noise had become too much for me to take. This noise was in the same place over and over again. As I lay down on my knees, with tears rushing down my face, my hands holding my head up from falling any lower, thinking of ways to end it, the only thing that stopped me was my dog had come up to me and pushed my hands away from my face with his nose. I looked at him, gripped his lead, run with him to the car and drove off to the countryside, just to get away from the noise.

Now when the noise is bad, I do that same drive and stay in the same place. That is my way for dealing with the noise. I am lucky, I have savings I can live off for 12 months or so. Other people in similar situations may not have the funds to live off and have to live with the noise, they can’t run away.  

Why am I writing about this? I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I just want to let me know the effects of these concentrated flight paths, a real-life situation. Not something the government has written down on paper. I am more than a number or a statistic.  I believe the government wants to increase the number of concentrated flight paths to increase the number of flights out of Heathrow. My story could become your story.  We should be protected from this noise; like the guy 10 years ago thought too.


The Remainers should remain out of Richmond

Perhaps it was inevitable.  The by-election called on the issue of a third runway might become a test-bed for all sorts of other issues.

And I don’t mean the circus of quirky candidates who are bound to roll up.  Some of them may be entertaining; a lot of will be downright irritating; but all of them will be irrelevant.

It’s what the main parties do that matters.  The Liberal Democrats and the Greens have been staunch opponents of a third runway.  They were also firmly in the Remain camp and have the right to bring up both issues at this election.

What really gets me is the call from some Remainers to back a unity candidate to unseat Zac Goldsmith.  For many the issue is not just Brexit but also the last Mayoral campaign and for some like the left-leaning Compass a chance to take the first step to form a ‘progressive’ alliance to defeat the Conservatives nationally at next General Election or the one after.

This sort of talk makes so many HACAN supporters bristle with anger.  In our long flight against a 3rd runway most of these people have been nowhere.  Indeed, many of them supported Heathrow expansion.  They haven’t even – unlike Heathrow Airport – thought about measures to ameliorate the impact of expansion.

Many people in West London are in a dark place right now.  Some fear losing their homes and communities; others dread the thought of a living under a flight path for the first time.  They applaud what Zac Goldsmith has done.  His decision to trigger this by-election has given them a glimmer of hope in their hour of darkness.  It’s their by-election.  It’s their issue.

For the Remainers to come marching in and try to turn this by-election into something else is to trample on the deep fears many local people have of Heathrow expansion. 

Debate between Zac Goldsmith and other political parties will happen and is what elections are about but Remainers and others who want to use this by-election for their own ends should remain out of Richmond. 

John Stewart, 30th October 2016




If respite is the answer, what is the question?


Guest blog by Chris Keady

you can reach the full HACAN website on www.hacan.org.uk 

If respite is the answer, what is the question?

Pick one of the following:

  1. ‘I’m not sure’,
  2. it depends who one asks; or
  3. am I bothered?

Before those desperate for respite, and about to explode with rage at this point, thinking this is some anti respite piece, don’t worry, it’s not. It is clear to anyone with a conscience that some people, and some communities, are desperate for relief from what is often unremitting aircraft noise, and it is only right that this is resolved. Respite designed and applied well, therefore, has a key role to play in current and future regimes, but it is not a panacea.

The point of the rhetorical question, therefore, is not to encourage discord, but to encourage a brief pause for reflection, and even further essential adjustment in the approach, and scope of the remedies available. As we shall see later the concept of ‘respite plus’ has developed to address the parts respite doesn’t, and as a response to serious Mental Health concerns arising from concentrated aircraft noise. The origins of the solution must not be lost in the race to transform airspace as the very people it was initially designed to support will have been betrayed and lives will be lost.

But what is respite anyway?

It has already been hinted at. Respite is a period of rest, or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.  The term is often used in the context of care giving, where carers are typically given a short break to recharge their batteries before resuming their duties and facing the world again.

In recent years, however, the term has been adopted by the aviation industry and applied as a means of providing a break for communities from incessant and particularly concentrated aircraft noise. It is increasingly seen as an essential element in the airspace redesign toolkit, particularly when introducing new flight paths. It is often used as a means of promoting the new arrangements.

The aviation industry has also learned from unsuccessful implementations of concentrated flight paths abroad, that respite is not an optional extra. In several instances respite has had to be introduced following the roll out of brutal concentrated flight path regimes, where there was little or no consideration for the lives or health of the overflown, who were considered ‘fair game’ or merely collateral damage. This was, and remains, unacceptable.

But while respite may be regarded as essential in addressing the toxic effects of concentrated flight path noise it is not the last word on the subject. For example “What does respite ‘look’ like in practice?”, ”What does it sound like?”,                 “How long should it be provided for ?“,  “How frequently should it be provided for? “, “Who should receive it?” ,“Why? “, and “When” and “How should ‘respite plus’ be applied?”.

Respite Plus and Hot Spots

These were concepts first publicly aired at the Aircraft Noise and Mental Health seminar held at the House of Commons earlier this year (July 2016). The concepts were particularly set within the context of new flight paths, and solutions necessary to address the ‘noise vulnerable’, and people, for example, with serious pre-existing mental health conditions. Effectively many were ‘unexploded bombs’ ready to be triggered by new flight path regimes, with potentially fatal consequences. These concerns were well–founded, and supported, for example, by several published European studies on ‘noise vulnerable’, and depression, and first-hand accounts.

Respite plus’, was therefore a response to the scope of respite, and other factors coming together, creating a ‘perfect storm’. Invariably ‘hotspots’ were at the eye of the storm, although they were often under the radar. This anomaly arose, as they could often be lost in noise contours as noise was perceived and treated as an average. Typically such hotspots might, for example, consist of two or more converging low altitude flight paths, and up to 500, noisy, over flights; although other nightmare permutations were also possible.

A brief period of respite in such circumstances would be inadequate and too late for pre-existing seriously depressed, for example, as they would most likely have been tipped into crisis before the intensely concentrated noise subsided, and a brief respite period was ushered in. Also if they suffered from hypertension (known to be badly affected by concentrated aviation noise) the health risk would fall off the Richter scale, and hence the need for ‘Respite Plus’.

There are three main components (stages) to ‘Respite Plus’:

1) Stage 1: ‘Double Take’. This is essentially a highly localised risk impact assessment that drills down to an identified (or flagged up) serious health risk. This may occur, for example, where two or even three (new) concentrated flight paths converge at low level above a home(s).

As already noted these may deliver c. 500 noise events a day, perhaps from 4.30 am through until midnight (aircraft won’t always fly to timetable). The noise will be intense, and seep into poorly insulated homes, disturbing sleep, and wellbeing. Every event will trigger a physiological ‘flight or fight’ response, whether this is consciously acknowledged, or not. And the sheer size and number of aircraft, and close proximity to some peoples’ homes, will negatively impact on local skyscapes and amenity. This will hardly improve the physical or mental health and wellbeing of those affected, or their ability to move.

When one has struggled back from the abyss, the very bowels of very serious mental ill health, has learned to live and believe again after years of rehabilitation and support from family and loved ones, it is incredibly worrying and destabilising when one realises that airspace change may literally kill you, as pre-existing health conditions rapidly deteriorate.

It is perhaps instructive to note that while it is known that concentrated flight paths may cause depression, there is no idea about what a safe noise ‘dose’ is, although ‘once in a lifetime airspace change’ is being ushered in without a shred of concern about this. This can’t be right. But 500 daily low altitude noise events, in the scenario described, isn’t safe. Yet if these same aircraft were at 4,000 feet or more, then the experience and impact would, perhaps, be significantly less bad. Perhaps one can  begin to see the problem?

But in view of the above, and in the absence of an impartial arbiter/Ombudsman, ‘double take’ provides a challenge, and a crucial opportunity to adjust flight paths, where possible, to ameliorate risk, and to distribute noise more equitably locally.

This approach is more humane than the touted ‘fewest people’ approach to flight path design, which seeks to minimise the number of people affected by noise, which typically compresses and concentrates noise into a smaller footprint – dumping more noise on fewer people. This takes no account of the misery, blight and ill health such an over-concentrated approach will have. Instead, any review of such ‘hotspots’ should reconsider redesign opportunities using a ‘least harm’ test. Thus by adjusting, or modestly tweaking, converging flight paths it should be possible to share the noise impact more equitably within the local community. Thus the net effect of a ‘least harm’ approach may be to increase the number of people affected from, say 1000 to 1012 people, but this would share the noise more fairly while saving lives. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t this fairer and more humane?

The ‘double take’ review may be triggered, for example, by a consultant psychiatrist in the case of noise vulnerable people, who suffer from serious pre-existing mental health conditions, and who have been assessed as being at serious risk of harm if significant change occurs in their environment. As mentioned earlier there may be other permutations, but this was considered a priority, and one has to start somewhere.

2) Stage 2: passive noise mitigation solutions                

If significant residual noise impacts remain after attempts at Stage 1 to review and adjust flight path(s) on a ‘least harm’ basis, then Stage 2 triggers the scoping, specification and provision of passive mitigation solutions.

Those affected will be actively involved in the process once an acoustic survey identifies the extent of any problem, and the possible design options (choices) have been defined.

The solutions may be enhanced / prioritised in the case of serious pre-existing physical (e.g. hypertension) and/or mental health conditions which are known to be adversely affected by aviation noise. In some cases both conditions may co-exist, significantly increasing the risk of premature death. Thus a health/noise impact assessment should surface and apply a multiplier to this very significant risk so that appropriate measures are put in place to address it.

The standard components of any solution are likely to be acoustic insulation (various types), and acoustic secondary or double/triple glazing. What matters will be what works, but those affected should be treated as customers with choices rather than involuntary consumers of aviation pollution. So colour of double/triple glazing, for example, may matter to some (may not all want white), and the aesthetics will matter, quite probably, in some, more sensitive cases.

Other products may include:  external roof window shutters, acoustically glazed roof window sashes (minus ventilation flaps), acoustic window and door shutters (internal), acoustic screens (glass/other), acoustic panels (internal/external) to absorb noise, air conditioning units main rooms (when windows and doors can’t be opened), and acoustic baffles for window, bathroom, and roof vents

Some people will no doubt look at this list and roll their eyes, but if one thinks about the worst health-affected initially, perhaps, and walk in their shoes for a moment,     ill-founded prejudiced attitudes may change.

Once the noise mitigation products have been installed there should be a post implementation audit to ensure that noise reduction objectives have been met, before certifying as such. This certification is important in that it ‘designs in’ quality thresholds that have to be met and signed off. They may offer some peace of mind about the effectiveness of the installations.

Often finance is used as a reason to do nothing. With toxic concentrated flight paths and known serious pre-existing health risks, this isn’t an option. Many feel the industry is under-taxed, and there is considerable scope to consider increasing Air Passenger Duty, levying VAT on zero-rated aviation fuel, or introducing a concentrated flight path tax (perhaps even top-slicing efficiency savings, by definition, derived from the overflown). There is a (strong) argument to hypothecate some of the tax levied to allow the airports to spend it on measures such as ‘respite plus’.

3) Stage 3: Moving on

This stage applies where the earlier stages fail to resolve the noise impact, and health is seriously compromised, or is likely to be seriously compromised in this instance, in the case, for example, of qualifying pre-existing health conditions. By ‘seriously compromised’ one means a serious and imminent health risk, which unaddressed may result in death.

The scheme, in the case of an owner occupier, would address the pre and post flight path change value, if any, as this is what will potentially lock people into a location that is killing them, as without support, they will be unable to escape. So if pre and post flight value difference was, say £100k, then e.g. if 75% was paid as redress, a further ‘top up’, low rate loan would be extended for the balance This loan could then be charged to the new property the person/household would be able to move to, and then repaid on death, sale or assignment, thus contributing to the cost of the ‘moving on’ scheme. The higher the exit barriers for ‘at risk’ individuals the greater the emotional, psychological and physiological damage and potential for catastrophe. In short, people need the possibility of a viable exit strategy, even if they don’t take it. They need hope and a safety net.

It is conceivable that an equivalent scheme can be developed for those in private rented or social housing so as to ensure an inclusive approach.

The benefit and possibility of ‘moving on’ for the worst affected can’t be under estimated. These people will not be solely those around the perimeter of airports, but will be stuck under low altitude highly concentrated flight paths, perhaps even under a ‘hot spot’ where two or more such flight paths converge, as described earlier.

Such a scheme is affordable, and unless the envisaged scope is unrealistically widened, is very much necessary – in fact it is essential – and ‘doable’.

There is a strategic role here too for a housing body to work with the airport, local authorities and significantly affected others, to develop schemes which liberate people from ‘landlocked’ overflown properties. Properties could be repurposed, exchanged as collateral with Housing Associations for alternative homes, amongst other things. Everyone has a responsibility to think and work outside the box to ensure that those who may have to struggle with new and extraordinary aircraft noise are given hope and options, rather than an imminent and very likely death sentence.

Why HACAN backs respite

Respite: Desirable? Practicable? Inevitable?

Here are some thoughts on why HACAN is backing respite.

People under the landing flight path in West London have had respite since the 1970s.  Planes landing at Heathrow switch runways at 3pm to give people a half day’s break from the noise.  Our members in West London tell us that this is what makes life bearable for them and, in the past, have taken to the streets to defend it.

For as long as I’ve been involved with HACAN ( since late 1990s), people under the approach path west of the airport – in places like Windsor – have lobbied for the end of the Cranford Agreement so they could get rid of all-day flying and get the respite enjoyed by West London.  With Cranford coming to an end, that will happen.

For almost as long, people in South East London have been calling for some respite from the noise.  Since 1996 when the point at which many more planes were guided on to their final approach path several miles further east than previously, areas like Peckham, Clapham and the Oval rarely get less than 20 planes an hour and can get over 40. (It also applies to places like Henley to the west of the airport when an east wind is blowing).  It is not pure concentration.  There is still an element of dispersal, particularly the further east you go.  But, judging from the emails and phone calls HACAN has got for well over a decade, people don’t like it.  The overwhelming demand is for periods of respite – predicable breaks from the noise – even if that means concentration at other times.  HACAN reflects this view in calling for respite.

I accept that the experience of some people under the departure routes is different.  For many years take-offs were dispersed across the Noise Preferential Route (NPRs) which have been in place since the 1960s.  Over the last decade or so aircraft technology enabled planes to be concentrated more and more on the centre-line of the NPRs.  Again, reflecting the views of our members and supporters, HACAN has always opposed this concentration.

Its impact became more apparent to more people during the 2014 trials when certain areas, like Teddington and Ascot, were bombarded with concentrated routes.  Living under them was sheer hell for many people and, even though the trials have ended, the experience has lead people to call for dispersal of the departures.

The question which must be faced is whether new technology makes some element of concentration inevitable for both landings and departures.  The technology allows for aircraft to be guided much more precisely.  It would enable concentrated routes to be introduced at every airport.  That would save the airlines money and fuel and bring some relatively small reduction in the amount of CO2 emitted by each aircraft.  It would also reduce the number of air traffic controllers that would be required.  And, if coordinated across continents (as is beginning to happen), it would make more effective use of airspace.

Given these advantages to the industry, there is worldwide momentum to it happening.  It will drive the UK Government’s consultation on airspace changes later this year.  As campaigners, we have to ask ourselves:  can we stop this (even if we wanted to)?  In my view, it would require local residents to protest at airports around the world on a scale never before seen.  I am not at all sure that is going to happen.

The alternative is to embrace the new technology and ensure it works in favour of residents as well as the industry.  To prevent what happened in n America where brutally concentrated routes were introduced, very much at the expense of residents..  Under pressure from the residents a lot of the airports are being forced to row back and introduce an element of respite.  But the principle of precision navigation remains; it is simply being accompanied by respite.

Nearly a decade ago HACAN saw the danger of what could happen if pure concentration was introduced.  We therefore started a long, strategic lobbying campaign to forestall it by ensuring the respite became an option engrained in Government policy and put in practice in a meaningful way at Heathrow.  We also knew from the emails we received from members and supporters who were getting dozens of planes an hour that they believed the new technology could work for them if it shared the burden.

And by sharing the burden they did not mean putting it to new areas.  Let me give an example of how it could work in South East London.  Aircraft could go over the Bermondsey, Vauxhall close to the river for a third of the day; the central area of Peckham and Stockwell for another third; and over Brixton Hill to the south for the final third of the day.  All areas currently overflown.  I stress this is just an example.  But, if it was feasible, so many residents tell us it would improve their lives immeasurably.  Some tell us that it would be the difference between staying where they and moving house.

Of course all this has to be tested to see if it is practicable.  And also how far apart flight paths need to be to provide meaningful respite from the noise.  That is why we are backing Heathrow’s decision to commission an independent study into what respite could look like. (The study will be ready next year).  Heathrow, I believe, want to get future flight paths (and flight paths will change with or without a third runway) to work for both the industry and residents.  That is our position also.

Jock Lowe, the former Concorde pilot, who is heading up the Heathrow Hub bid, has promoting innovative curved approaches to Heathrow.  They have real potential to increase the amount of respite any one community can enjoy.  Some in the industry have cast doubts about the feasibility of all Jock’s ideas but few deny that they will be part of the mix in the airspace changes that are to come.

Of course meaningful respite for departures is going to be difficult.  The existing Noise Preferential Routes are narrow.  Creating new ones would be controversial.  The industry may need to accept an element of dispersal.  We hope the Heathrow-commissioned study – the first of its kind in the world – will throw up feasible options.

Of course, respite is not the whole answer.  Heights of aircraft are important.  Good insulation can help.  But, given the new technology now available to the industry and the inevitability of precision navigation technology being introduced,  I feel that meaningful respite will be essential to protect residents.  Done well, it could do more than simply protect them; it could improve the current situation for many people.  A lot of them are banking on it.