Flight paths for people on the way?

4/4/16

by John Stewart

At last we are seeing movement on introducing flight paths which can benefit residents.

Last week Gatwick Airport accepted the recommendations of an independent report which outlined a new approach to flight paths.  http://www.gatwickairport.com/globalassets/publicationfiles/business_and_community/all_public_publications/2016/gatwick—response-document-action-plan-final-31mar2016.pdf (pdf)

These included looking to introduce multi-path approaches to share out the noise burden.  The devil of this scheme will lie in the detail and there will need to be changes from the routes suggested to avoid some areas getting both arrivals and departures.  But the change in the airport’s attitude from just from a couple of years ago has been seismic.  It had changed routes with little or no regard for residents.  This provoked a backlash from some very well-healed areas.  The result has been that the airport has had to rethink it approach.

The Gatwick decision comes hard on the heels of a consultation from the Civil Aviation Authority suggesting new ways in which it oversees changes to flight paths which are more transparent and involve local people more closely.https://consultations.caa.co.uk/policy-development/proposals-for-revised-airspace-change-process/consult_view

HACAN has broadly welcomed the proposals in the consultation:  my_response (2) (pdf)

The CAA had been heavily criticized, including in a report it had commissioned from the consultants Helios, over the way it had been overseeing proposals for changes to flight paths.  For example, its decision to allow London City Airport to concentrate its flight paths has provoked outrage from residents, MPs and local authorities in the areas affected.  Our sister organisation, HACAN East, will be seeking to meet with the CAA over the decision.

Many of the flight path changes are being driven by the industry’s desire to use the new computer technology now available to fly planes on more precise routes.  That can save airlines fuel, increase the capacity of the airspace, improve the resilience of busy airports and make some savings on climate change emissions.

Although concentration of flight paths is not an inevitable result of the use of this new precision technology, it has been the outcome in many places, most notably in America where communities and city authorities have been up in arms.  Quite rightly so, as noise ghettos have been created.

Some years ago HACAN foresaw this danger of noise ghettos and has engaged with Heathrow Airport to come up with flight path proposals which not only bring benefits to the industry but also to residents.  We identified the provision of respite as the key, i.e. the sharing around of concentrated routes in order to give people predicable periods of relief from the noise. (The proposed routes at Gatwick are, I believe, slightly different: the intention is to use the multiple routes not to give periods of predicable relief but to ensure no community get all the planes but the aim is the same: to avoid the creation of noise ghettos).

Heathrow Airport has invested a considerable amount of effort in preparing for respite.  It has commissioned a major study looking at how meaningful respite can be introduced in and around Heathrow.

The prize for hundreds of thousands of residents could be huge.  It is not just that noise ghettos are likely to be avoided but that the current situation will be improved.  Years before we had heard of precision technology, HACAN had been pressing for just this sharing out of concentrated routes because of the daily nightmare people were experiencing.

This is not something many of the people living under the landing flight path in West London truly understand as most of them already get relief when planes coming in to the airport switch runways at 3pm.

But this relief only applies to those in the boroughs closest to the airport.    In a typical week, by far the largest number of emails and phone calls I get come from people outside these areas.  Some are from people under departure routes (which I’ll deal with shortly); the majority from people in South East and East London driven crazy by what they see as constant noise; sometimes, according to surveys carried out by HACAN, over 40 planes an hour.

These people don’t fear new flight paths.  They can’t wait for them to be introduced.  They want the blessed relief that predicable flight paths, switched on a regular basis, would bring.  I am not exaggerating when I say that people ring me to tell me their fervent hope is that they can hold out until the respite comes in.  They don’t have to move away in the meantime because of the noise.  There are even people who have rented out their homes for a few years, intending to move back in when relief and respite become a reality.

The emotions and the passions, the fears and the hopes are intense.  It is the same for many under the departure routes.  The “ghettoisation” of departures has been intensified as aircraft have increasingly all followed the centre-line of the Noise Preferential Routes (the 3 kilometre wide band which aircraft need to use until they reach 4,000 ft).

It will be harder to introduce meaningful respite within the Noise Preferential Routes and some sharing around within the NPR might be more appropriate.

Heathrow is under a lot of pressure to announce what flight paths will look like if a third runway is built.  I suspect it does not know where they will all be.  It is unlikely to be in a position to know until it completes its respite study (expected to be spring 2017).  By then, it will be clearer whether it is planning flight paths for a two or three runway airport.  A third runway clearly brings all sorts of other issues but, even with a third runway in place, Heathrow claims it could provide 95% of people with respite 50% of the time.  That’s much more than it does today.  For most people that’s not an argument for a third runway but what it does reveal is the possibilities for respite that are opening up.

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