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

30/3/17

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  Outdated metrics were the norm.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

 

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