Living under the flight path to Heathrow – before, during and after Covid-19

In March, 2020, the Corona virus, a global pandemic we’d only heard about a couple of months before, reached our shores and on the 23rd March the whole of the UK went into lockdown.   We stayed at home, learned how to wash our hands, understood the term socially distant, became wary of touching everything and anything, ran out of sanitizer and loo paper, and, more seriously PPE, (personal protective equipment). The streets emptied, the shops, parks and the whole of the hospitality industry closed, and we wondered how we were going to feed ourselves as Supermarkets became dangerous places. 

But in defiance of all this, the weather in the UK changed from the wind and excessive rain of Jan and Feb into an unimaginably ethereal spring.   The sun shone out of a clear blue sky and for those of us living under the flight path to Heathrow, a miracle happened: THE PLANES STOPPED. 

We could hear bird song, wind blowing in the new-leaved trees, the honk of geese taking off from the Thames, the quack of ducks or moorhens.   We could sit in the garden – it was warm enough – and hear ourselves think.  For weeks we could forget what it was like to anticipate the constant drone of planes overhead, and stop imagining pollution, like an invisible gas, drifting down on to all of us living in Kew.  

I live in Kew under flightpath 27R, of planes landing at Heathrow.  At the moment we have no take-offs, but that could change.  The prevailing wind is from the west about 70% of the time.  Before lockdown this meant that for 70% of the year, planes landing at Heathrow from  the east, have to fly over the whole of the densely-populated area of most of London to land on one of the two runways.  When they reach Barnes they take one of two flight paths – 27R for aircraft approaching the northern runway, and 27L for aircraft approach the southern runway.  Known as alternation, this is meant to give respite from noise, but by the time planes reach Kew the distance between the two paths is so narrow that it is possible hear and see planes on both flight paths i.e. ALL DAY and some of the night. 

To understand what this means here are the facts before lockdown:

  • About 650 planes a day land at Heathrow and in rush hour, air traffic controllers sometimes have to land one plane every 45 seconds
  • At Kew, 10 nautical miles from Heathrow, the minimum height of incoming planes between 6am and 11pm should be 2500ft and at night 3000ft.  Most of the time they feel and look much lower.
  • Between 11pm and 6am there are sixteen night flights
  • From 6am to 7am planes land on both runways with an even shorter time between flights landing,;  the sound never completely dies away before the sound of the next plane can be heard gradually getting louder and louder
  • Between 7am and 3pm planes will take one of the flight paths and switch to the alternate flight path from 3pm to 11 pm.

Nearly a year later in January 2021 Heathrow remained busy compared with other airports around London.  Nevertheless, on Thursday 21st Jan 2021 Heathrow handled 211 ‘movements’ (total departures and arrivals) compared to roughly 1,223 ‘movements’ on a day in January 2020 .

This state affairs will return after we get through the pandemic and may get worse.  Airspace is being re-organised and may mean that the half–day respite of flights will be reduced. If the third runway is built, the current 480,000 of plane ‘movements’  per annum will increase.   There will a third flight path less than mile further north than the current ‘northern’ flight path, 27R.  There are rumours of our area being under the flight path of departures as well as arrivals.  The noise and pollution will inevitably increase.

Heathrow is a hungry animal.  In a kind of semi-hibernation at the moment, we are assured it will wake up and return with a vengeance.  Under the threat of climate change, we have to break the pattern which says that commercial considerations of the economy are more important than the well-being and physical and mental health of the hundreds of thousands of people living within twenty miles of the airport.  The pandemic has shown us that it is not always necessary to jump on a plane for business purposes, and if we have a conscience we should avoid flying for pleasure as much as possible.  We have to question the inexorable growth of Heathrow, or any airport, and instead be looking at how to reduce noise and pollution for everyone’s benefit and the good of the world.

Harriet Grace

Noise is an equity issue

Listen out for the voice of the voiceless

The better-off we are, the louder our complaints about any noise problem we may have.  

This can give the impression that noise is not really a concern for people who are less well-off.

Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.

But before looking at some of it, it is worth making this distinction.  Communities, areas, places can be impacted by noise but not necessarily disturbed by it.  To get a true picture of the noise climate both issues need to be addressed.

What is very clear is that in Britain and across the world poorer communities are the most impacted by noise. 

I suspect aircraft noise may be the partial exception to this.  It obviously depends on where an airport is sited but many flight paths fly over rich and poor communities alike.  At Heathrow, for example, some of the wealthiest communities in the land – places like Richmond and Teddington – are overflown but so are some of the most densely-populated and deprived wards in Europe.

Even in aviation, though, there may be some bias against poorer communities.  Would a developer have dared to build London City Airport in the 1980s on fashionable Hampstead Heath instead of run-down North Woolwich?  I know I’m being a bit unfair because there was no reason to build an airport on Hampstead Heath while the justification for it in East London was to regenerate an area devastated by the closure of the Docks.  

But would Hampstead ever be considered for an airport even though, on reflection, there might be a market for private jets there.  After all The Bishops Avenue is close by, home to monarchs, business magnates, and celebrities – in the famous words of an estate agent: “Among the wealthiest circles in the world The Bishops Avenue is better known than Buckingham Palace. It’s a significant demonstration of status. If you live there, you don’t need to explain to people that you’re rich.”  Houses go on the market for up to £65 million.  But a new airport nearby is just inconceivable.

Traffic noise has been described as largely a main road problem these days – i.e. on the roads where low-income communities live in disproportionately large numbers.  Ironically, it is the result of the ‘progressive’ traffic policies pursued over the last 30 years.  Traffic-calming on, and closures of, ‘residential’ roads have funnelled traffic on to the main roads which for many low-income residents are their ‘residential’ roads.

Plans to reduce or tame traffic on ‘residential’ roads can only have all-round benefits if they include proposals to cut traffic on the adjacent main roads at the same time.  It can be done by reallocating road space on the main roads away from cars to other modes of transport through, for example, installing bus and cycle lanes.  Some of the measures being brought in post-Covid may do that but it shouldn’t be hit and miss.  It needs to be a mandatory requirement. 

Anybody can have noisy neighbours but we are a lot more likely to do so if we are less well-off.  A MORI survey revealed that almost 20% of people with a household income of less than £17,500 (2003 prices) regularly heard noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants.  In contrast only 12% of people with an income of over £30,000 could hear their neighbours.

It is a similar picture with wind turbine noise.  When I wrote a short report called ‘Location, Location, Location’ in 2006 on wind turbine noise, it became clear to me that those most affected by wind farm noise were poorer communities in rural areas.  

OK, so it is fairly clear that noise disproportionately impacts low-income communities.  But are they also the people most disturbed by it?

There is some truth that people can adapt to noisy surroundings, particularly if it is the only world they have known.  There is also evidence that some people like noise; that it is silence which disturbs them.  But is a very big jump from there to argue that because people in low-income communities complain less about noise they are not disturbed by it. 

There is evidence of very real disturbance.  When I did more work on surface level transport matters 25 years ago, I spent a lot of time talking with local communities (mainly about the provision of public transport).  In the poorer areas if Inner London there were some complaints about buses and trains, but, invariably, the conversation turned to traffic.  That was the big concern: the air pollution and noise it caused; the danger it posed and the way it divided communities.  Yet rarely did the communities have the time or resources to set up an action group.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence comes from the emerging economies of the ‘developing’ world.  I covered it extensively in my book Why Noise Matters, published by Earthscan in 2011.

This from Dr Yeswant Oke, a medical consultant and anti-noise campaigner In Mumbai (where noise levels are extraordinarily high):  ‘People and patients are silently suffering as they feel helpless.  People feel agitated and angry, impotent to some extent.  Indians are very docile.  They would rather suffer than have enmity with the neighbours.  But lately patience is wearing thin, and more and more people are complaining to get relief.’ 

A survey in Vietnam found that over a fifth of residents in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are highly annoyed by the typical daily noise levels in the cities.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  The concern about noise is there.  It is just that it is not been voiced publicly.

The obvious danger is that, if the concerned voices of poorer communities are not being raised or not being heard, the louder, more confident voices of those of us who are better-off will drive policy much more than we should.  We will get our peace and quiet….but perhaps at the expense of the voiceless.

This is what has happened on the roads.  Confident voices have pushed the traffic away from their streets on to the main roads.  And, in a double whammy against those living on main roads, the ‘confident voices’ drive regularly along these roads past the homes of people who are much less likely to have a car.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in aviation.  Communities with confident voices can get special treatment.  And those communities less well-resourced can be more or less sidelined.  I think the only explanation why communities in Glasgow – one of the most heavily overflown cities in Britain – have been ignored by the airport for so long is that the flight paths are over some of the most deprived areas in the country.

My conclusion is not that well-heeled communities should shut up.  It is that local authorities and national governments don their headphones, turn up the volume in order to try and hear – and then act on – the complaints, often whispered, from poorer and less well-resourced communities. 

Sheer fury unleased against the aviation industry

Taming the Tsunami of anger against the aviation industry

Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I’ve been taken aback by the sheer fury against the aviation industry which the Coronavirus crisis has unleashed.  I’m not talking about anti-capitalists calling for ‘system change not climate change’.  That was fairly predicable.  

What has come across with the force of a tsunami is the anger and resentment directed at the aviation industry from ordinary residents living under flight paths.  It is as if a lid has been lifted and uncontrolled emotions have poured out like hot lava escaping from a volcanic eruption.

Social media, email inboxes, the mainstream press have been flooded with material railing against industry bail-outs, insufficient testing of people arriving at airports or the merest hint of aviation workers being asked to take a pay cut. I’m not saying there is not truth in some of those accusations.  But the accusations themselves have been dwarfed the sheer fury and frequency with which they are being made. 

It is symptomatic of a much deeper anger.  People’s anger doesn’t allow them to acknowledge the industry has any good points.  Well-written articles about the importance of air freight to bring in medicines and essential supplies are met with an embarrassed silence. It’s like what happens in a violent revolution:  good and bad are treated alike and all trampled underfoot. 

Fury on this scale must have real roots.  It can, it is true, be reinforced by fellow travellers, particularly on social media, and be as contagious as any virus.  But there has to be more than that behind it.

We need to look at – the aviation industry in particular needs to look at – where this fury is coming from.  A leading campaigner said to me, “the industry didn’t look after us in the good times, why should we be nice to it now?”  And broadly, with some notable exceptions, that’s true:

  • Why did so many American airports choose to put their new concentrated flight paths over just a handful of communities when they could have created multiple routes and rotated them to share out the burden?
  • Why does Charles De Gaulle still land over 150 planes at night when both Frankfurt and Heathrow have periods without scheduled flights?
  • Why is Luton Council, the owner of the airport, the judge and jury of when it breaks its own planning regulations?
  • Why does Newcastle refuse to even consider giving residents respite?
  • Why did Glasgow Airport turn a deaf ear for over a decade to calls for insulation from residents who have planes just 400ft above them?

All these problems could have been sorted without affecting the viability of the aviation industry.  The industry knows that.  Residents know that.  In these cases, and many more, the industry felt it could ignore the residents almost at will.  We begin to see where the fury and the anger have come from.

Research shows that people become more annoyed if they feel that any industry, any company is not doing all it can to mitigate its downsides.

There are signs in the UK things will improve.  ICCAN, the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise, is due to publish a best practice guide later this very year and ICCAN’s very presence should improve the industry’s behaviour.  The Government’s Aviation White Paper, also out later this year, is expected to introduce tougher standards on noise, sound insulation and community engagement.

And there are some airports which are doing noticeably better than others.  And there have been welcome initiatives taken across the industry. 

But I think what is needed is a new contract between airports and their residents.  A contract where best practice is not just the norm, but is mandatory; where first-class consultation is not just a nice-to-have, but is compulsory; where if residents want respite, the airport needs to provide it; where the provision of sound insulation is not a post-code lottery; where residents help shape the noise policy of the airport and are not merely consulted on it from time to time.  Airports, and perhaps airlines as well, should be required to provide an annual public account showing if and how they have met the regulations.  If they have not, the most effective sanction would a requirement to reduce the number of planes using the airport by, say, 5% in the following year.

I hope that is not unrealistically tough.  But I think something like this is required to abate the fury of residents.  It would not harm the industry, even an industry that is currently on its knees, stricken by the virus, for these sorts of regulations to be met. 

The other factor fuelling the fury is the  sheer number of flights now going over so many communities.  Respite in my view should be a no-brainer for the industry.  It is the way to reduce flights numbers over particular communities while allowing some overall growth at the airport.

It would be a mistake at this stage to talk about more taxes on the industry in order to manage demand.  It will take a long time to recover from the lockdown.  The boss of Lufthansa said in the last few days: “It will take months until the global travel restrictions are completely lifted and years until the worldwide demand for air travel returns to pre-crisis levels.”

We need the industry to revive.  Aviation has been a critical part of the globalised economy which has over the last few decades has lifted billions out of poverty.  Aviation facilitates trade which brings prosperity and often opens up closed societies.  Moreover, with less than 10% of the world having ever flown, there will be, in time, increased demand for both business and leisure travel.

What many residents fear, though, is return to the bombardment of noise over their heads. I suspect in due course there needs to be some demand management to ensure this doesn’t happen.  Aviation is under-taxed, with no tax on aviation fuel and no VAT on tickets (outside a few countries).  Something like the Frequent Flyers Levy (where each person gets one tax-free return flight each year but tax rises with each subsequent flight) could do the trick.  It would manage demand and maybe reduce it in parts of Europe.  The clever move – and I think the right move – would be to use the revenue from the tax to go to both Governments and the aviation industry for research and development into quieter and cleaner planes by both the public and private sector.  Imposed in the short-term, the tax would be an additional burden for an industry on its knees.  In the medium-term, though, it may well be a key part of the answer which will help abate the anger of residents while bringing benefits to the aviation industry.   

John Stewart

Community engagement a condition of expansion

In this short blog I argue that the Department for Transport in its forthcoming White Paper should make expansion or growth at any airport conditional on quality community engagement:

We don’t know yet what will happen with the third runway at Heathrow.  But whether or not it is dropped, it is important that one aspect of the process remains: the community engagement Heathrow has undertaken as part of its efforts to secure a third runway.

Some of the engagement was undertaken voluntarily; some was mandated by the National Policy Statement – Heathrow would not get its third runway unless it had shown it had engaged with its local community.

The proposal in this short blog is that future expansion at any airport across the country should be conditional on good community engagement.  It should become a key criterion in determining whether the expansion is given the go-ahead.

If a third runway is dropped, the Government will be encouraging growth at other airports.  Yet many of them are very poor at engaging with their communities.  It was clear at a recent Aviation Communities Forum conference, which brought together campaigners from across the country, that most airports just do not have adequate engagement procedures in place.

ICCAN, the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise, is planning to publish a best practice guide later this year.  That will be very welcome.  But isn’t there a case for the Department for Transport in its forthcoming Aviation White Paper to go one step further and make expansion/growth conditional on first-rate community engagement?   

Third Runway delay

A note to the man ‘who got Brexit done’: delay a 3rd runway decision and many communities will hurt

A third runway at Heathrow could still be a decade away.  That’s even if it gets the final green light from the Secretary of State for Transport in 2021 following the public inquiry which is expected to start later this year.  It had been scheduled to open in 2026 but now it could be 2029.  That’s because the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced shortly before Chistmas that it had refused Heathrow permission to spend the money it wanted on a third runway before final permission has been granted.

As I a long-time opponent of a third runway I should be delighted.  But, although I know delay is a tried and tested – and sometimes successful – tactic used to a stop major development, I’m uneasy about the prospect of a delay.  Too much is hold until the runway is either built or abandoned.  And not just for the obvious players:  Heathrow as well as many businesses and some other airports who would plan differently if a third runway was dropped; but also for many communities, including many of the people who HACAN represents.

It is not unlike Brexit.  Except for committed remainers, there seems to be general relief that a clear decision on Brexit will now be taken.  The uncertainty was hurting.

A lot of residents are hurting waiting for some certainty around a third runway.  A couple of weekends ago I visited some of our members who live not far from Brixton in South London.  They’ve had all-day flying for years.  During my visit the noise was constant.  

They suspect nothing will change in the short-term because the aviation industry is focused on plans for a third runway, designing its flight paths and a new night flight regime on the basis it will happen.  For them, those changes may be potentially beneficial:  a longer night period without planes and an end to all-day flying as multiple routes are introduced in order to provide them with respite they’ve been wanting for years.  If a runway is to be given permission, they would prefer it – and the changes it would usher in – to open in 2026 rather than 2029.

Big decisions hang on the timing.  One woman told me she could not face another decade of unremmiting noise and would need to move away whereas five or six years might just be about bearable.

They need to know what will happen to them if the third runway is dropped.  They know that new flight paths, driven by new satellite-based technology, will come in whether or not as third runway will be built.  But all the current focus is on how to coordinate the flight paths of a 3-runway Heathrow with the new flight paths being introduced at the other airports in London and the South East.  A huge undertaking which would probably need to start from scratch if Heathrow remained a 2-runway airport.  

On Friday I received two emails, one from a woman in Lewisham, the other from a couple in Chiswick wanting to move but not knowing where to go because of the continuing uncertainty about where new flight paths will be and when they will be introduced.  They feel in limbo.

This uncertainty is perhaps most stark for those whose homes are threatened by the runway.  Some don’t want to move; others are prepared to take the offer on the table; but most want some certainty so they can plan their future.

If a third runway means you will be under a flight path for the first time, or if a third runway will mean more planes over your home, or if you are a climate campainger, delay is important.  

But we need to recognise many communities want an early decision – one way or another.  Their lives are on hold – and often dominated by unremitting noise which nobody feels they can do anything about until a decision is made.  

It is not always easy for campaigners to understand that it is not just many in business and the aviation industry who want a clear decision on a third runway soon.  It is also many local communities.

Boris and the third runway

Will Boris bulldoze the Heathrow third runway?

Boris once rang me up.  It was a bit incongruous really.  Here was I standing on the deserted platform of  Isleworth rail station in West London, with the Mayor of London on my mobile.  He was congratulating me on my work in campaigning against a third runway and urging me to stand firm.

I am certain Boris doesn’t like the third runway.  He’s probably not too keen on a second runway at Gatwick either.  And he opposed the last expansion plans at London City Airport.  His dream remains Boris Island, the off-shore Estuary Airport, or something similar: a big new airport – away from a populated area – that can compete on the world stage. 

There will be intense pressure from all sides on Boris, now that he is Prime Minister, over the third runway.  Which way will he jump?

I don’t think we will know the answer to that for some time.  Brexit is his priority.  His current cabinet is there to deliver Brexit.  It includes strong supporters of a third runway like transport secretary Grant Schapps as well as committed opponents like environment secretary Theresa Villiers.

Boris has been very careful to keep his options open.  Last week Parliament he gave an interesting answer to the Green MP Caroline Lucas when she asked about 3rd runway:  “The bulldozers are some way off but I’m following with lively interest the court cases because I share her concerns about air quality and about pollution.”  No commitment to stop it or build it.

I suspect, though, that never before have so many key opponents of a third runway had the ear of a Prime Minister:

Sir Edward Lister, his chief of staff, for 19 years the leader of Wandsworth Council, a consistent critic of a third runway

Theresa Villiers, his Secretary of State for the Environment, the person who when shadow Transport Secretary in the late 1990s, played a key role in persuading David Cameron to come out against the third runway

Zac Goldsmith, appointed to Boris’s Government to work on environment and animal welfare issues across two Government departments, DEFRA and Dfid, famously resigned his seat and fought a by-election on the issue of a third runway

Daniel Moylan, Boris’s aviation adviser when he was London Mayor and who is still close to Boris and, as an ardent Bexiteer, is expected to given a role in the Brexit negotiations 

Ray Puddifoot, the long-time leader of Hillingdon Council, the borough which includes Boris’s own Uxbridge constituency, is an implacable opponent of a third runway.  Hillingdon has put a huge amount of money into fighting it: in supporting residents and the wider opposition movements and in helping to fund legal challenges.  Indeed, it is thought that Puddifoot’s strategy has been to delay the new runway long enough in the hope Boris would one day become Prime Minister.

If Boris was minded to drop a third runway when would be do it?  My view is that he is likely to let the current consultation and probably next year’s Public Inquiry run their course.  In early 2021 the Government will need to make the final decision on the third runway.  This would be Boris’s opportunity to drop it if he was so minded.  If he did so before the proposal for the new runway had gone through the formal planning procedures, the Government would almost certainly need to find billions of pounds to compensate Heathrow for the work it has done.

Zac Goldsmith would not stay in a Government which gave a new runway the go-ahead and Ray Puddifoot and others would feel badly let down.

Could Boris sell a no third runway strategy to his cabinet and party? Perhaps only if he offered them the realistic prospect of a world-class airport elsewhere.  Business would want the same.  Or else this would be seen as the biggest ‘F… Business’ of all time.  

Heathrow would be devastated.  And rightly so.  Although I have spent many years opposing a third runway, I recognise Heathrow has put a lot of time and money into trying to mitigate and manage its impacts in a way few airports in the world have ever done.

But perhaps Heathrow and its business backers will persuade Boris to overcome his own instincts and the beliefs of some of his closest colleagues and permit the expansion.  

What we do know is that the third runway is currently in that strangest of places:  in planning terms it is closer than ever before; but in power is a Prime Minister who threatens it more than any of his predecessors.     

John Stewart 

John Stewart chairs HACAN which gives a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths

Hot weather


It is during these hot sunny days and warm nights that people’s vastly different reactions to aircraft noise come to the fore.  

I remember shortly after I started campaigning with HACAN arriving at a member’s house just as her husband was preparing to ‘enjoy’ the summer sunshine in his garden….seemingly oblivious to the constant noise of planes roaring overhead.  I don’t think he ever did join HACAN!

At the opposite end of the spectrum people have put up recent posts on social media saying how, in this hot weather, they lie in bed in the late evening with the sweat pouring off rather than open their windows.  There’s even one person who spends more or less all her time barricaded into one room of her house, surrounded with fans, because she finds the noise so disturbing when she opens the window.

In my book Why Noise Matters I said we are beginning to see two worlds colliding: 

“those people who embrace loud and constant noise, who see no real problem with it; and those who are increasingly disturbed and, in some cases, utterly distressed by the noise around them.  It means people will have markedly different attitudes to their neighbours’ stereo-system, to living under a noise flight path…….”

This matters because if decision-makers do not understand the impact noise can have on some people they may see less need to bring in policies to deal with it.

Rainer Guski, the German psychologist and acoustician, estimates that about 10% of people will become more annoyed by noise than the general population.  At Heathrow, that is likely to mean that over 50,000 will be disturbed by the noise from the planes using the airport.

They are not necessarily those living closest to the airport. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people born and bred under a noisy flight path often block it out.  A couple of years ago I gave a speech to an audience in Hounslow West, an area of West London criss-crossed by noisy flight paths.  Afterwards I asked the young man sitting next to me, who was at the event with his parents, what he thought about what I had said.  Somewhat shyly, he confessed, “To be quite honest, John, it did nothing for me.  I have lived under the flight path and gone to school under it all my life and I simply don’t hear the planes.”

He’s not alone. Many people can block out the noise.  For others it is a concern but not the biggest issue in their lives.  People seem most disturbed if they feel, rightly or wrongly, the planes have come newly to them.  Sometimes that is actually the case; at other times an increase in flight numbers has triggered an awareness of the planes that were always overhead.

There is evidence that as a society we have become more tolerant of noise (at a time we have become less tolerant of air pollution and climate emissions). Researchers Blesser and Salter argued in The examined rewards of excessive noise that “when a culture accepts loudness as being a legitimate right in recreational sound venues, that acceptance tends to legitimise all forms of noise pollution…….loudness becomes the cultural norm.”

I wrote in my book, “It this argument is correct, it has profound implications for tackling noise.  Will decision-makers feel under the same pressure to deal with noise if loudness has become the cultural norm for at least a percentage of the population?  Indeed, how many decision-makers themselves will fall into that category?  And where will that leave the millions who will still be disturbed by noise, far less the 10% of people who are particularly noise-sensitive.”

Questions for decision-makers to ponder as they enjoy or hide away from the hot summer days we are about to have.   

It is during these hot sunny days and warm nights that people’s vastly different reactions to aircraft noise come to the fore. 

I remember shortly after I started campaigning with HACAN arriving at a member’s house just as her husband was preparing to ‘enjoy’ the summer sunshine in his garden….seemingly oblivious to the constant noise of planes roaring overhead.  I don’t think he ever did join HACAN!

At the opposite end of the spectrum people have put up recent posts on social media saying how, in this hot weather, they lie in bed in the late evening with the sweat pouring off rather than open their windows.  There’s even one person who spends more or less all her time barricaded into one room of her house, surrounded with fans, because she finds the noise so disturbing when she opens the window.

In the latest HACAN blog I discuss the vastly different ways in which people react to aircraft noise and how important it is that decision-makers, however they personally react to the noise, frame policies which protect those most affected: 

It is during these hot sunny days and warm nights that people’s vastly different reactions to aircraft noise come to the fore. 

I remember shortly after I started campaigning with HACAN arriving at a member’s house just as her husband was preparing to ‘enjoy’ the summer sunshine in his garden….seemingly oblivious to the constant noise of planes roaring overhead.  

At the opposite end of the spectrum people have put up recent posts on social media saying how, in this hot weather, they lie in bed in the late evening with the sweat pouring off rather than open their windows.  There’s even one person who spends more or less all her time barricaded into one room of her house, surrounded with fans, because she finds the noise so disturbing when she opens the window.

But I never had planes before

We hear these kinds of phrases more and more – maybe because it is so easy to put them on to social media.   

‘I never had planes before’ or ‘the planes were so high, they were no problem’ 

Sometimes it is true that flight paths have changed but all too often that is not the case.  Even when independent evidence is produced to show that change has not taken place, it is angrily rejected as ‘lies and falsehoods’.  

People won’t believe the evidence because they don’t believe it tallies with their own experience.

This attitude:

  • Damages the individuals holding it
  • Damaging their ability to work with fellow campaigners
  • Damaging their credibility with the aviation industry and Government

In this blog I look at why they won’t accept the facts and spell out the damage it is doing.

My first example comes from South London.   A year or two ago a resident – let’s call her Susan – rang HACAN to say that aircraft had started for the first time going over her home, where she had lived for several decades, at just before 4.30am on an exact date in July 2016. 

She was adamant there had not been planes there beforehand.  Yet we had commissioned an independent study from a respected acoustics firm which showed that a decade earlier upwards of 40 planes an hour were flying over her area at heights of around 4,000 feet.  Indeed, the report concluded “aircraft noise dominated the local environment.” 

Yet even today she won’t accept she was overflown before July 2016 and will launch forth into loud, bitter rants of how she is being misled by the aviation industry and duped by HACAN.

Clearly something happened to Susan on that fateful morning in July 2016.  We can only speculate.  My guess would be that it is likely that a series of heavily-laden night flights passed directly over her house and alerted her (it appears for the first time) to the activity in the skies above her home.

My second example comes from a village in Surrey.   A long-term resident, let’s call him Bill, claims he had no aircraft noise problems before 2012.  Since then, he believes he is being bombarded by noise.  The evidence shows that his village has had planes overhead since the 1950s.  In 2012 there was an operational trial which did impact the village.  But it was a trial.  It ended. The flight paths are now little different than they were before the trial.

The trial seems to have been the event which triggered in him an awareness of the planes overhead.  He simply does not believe all these planes were there before 2012.  When Heathrow says ‘nothing has changed’ he dismisses them as inveterate liars. When his fellow campaigners tell him that many decades ago they played golf in his village to the sound of planes overhead, he is utterly bemused.

My third example from is from North East London.  A young man believes he did not have planes over his home before London City concentrated all its flight paths in 2016.  The concentrated flight paths go straight over his house.  They alerted him to the activity in the skies above him.  But both City and Heathrow aircraft had flown over or close to him for many years. 

My fourth example comes from South West London.  Parts of the area were bombarded by aircraft in a way they hadn’t experienced before during operational trials in 2014. There were not any more planes than normal but the flight paths became concentrated.  The result was that some members of the local community became disturbed by the planes overhead for the first time.

The trials triggered that disturbance.  Prior to the trials the area had been overflown for decades, to the extent that local residents joined campaign groups like HACAN from the 1970s onwards.  But the minority of people, for whom the trials were the trigger, remain convinced the trials changed everything.  They believe that things did not go back to the way they were prior to the trials.

People like Robert.  Convinced that before the 2014 trials planes over him were so high he could barely hear them, he believes that all the statistics about flight paths and heights which Heathrow has for the years before 2014 were made up subsequent to the trials in order to justify Heathrow’s ‘lies’!  This is deeply, deeply delusional.  

This despite overwhelming evidence that they did:  a CAA report, a study from Anderson Acoustics, flight paths going back many years and a study (paid for by Heathrow) from independent consultants who the residents appointed and supervised! 

There have been changes to the flight paths and to the heights of the aircraft in the areas affected but they are not related to the 2014 trials, a fact that many of the residents refuse to accept because, like Susan in South London, it does not tally with their personal experience.

And because they believe Heathrow has lied to them, they continue, very often aggressively, to distrust everything the airport says.  They attack anybody who does not share their world view, from Government to fellow campaigners.  They ignore what other members of their own community are saying.

Trigger Point

The common factor in all these cases is that something triggered, for the first time, an awareness of the aircraft that had been flying over them for many years, even decades.  The trigger is often an increase in flights numbers but it could be a change in a person’s circumstances – maybe, for example, they have just retired and are now at home all day.

Of course it is difficult for anybody to accept that the planes, which are now driving them crazy, were always there – though, in some cases, fewer of them – but that they didn’t hear them or weren’t annoyed by them.  The real problem arises when people are so certain they never had the planes before that they won’t even consider the evidence which shows that they are wrong.  In doing so, they are causing a lot of damage.

The damage these people are doing

We are talking about people living in a parallel universe that is real for them but is not reality.  Their belief is at variance with the facts.  And the way they cling to it with a cult-like certainty is doing real damage to themselves as individuals, to their relationships with their fellow campaigners and to their credibility with the aviation industry and Government.  I look at each in turn.

1. Damaging themselves 

Let’s go back to Susan in South London.  Her refusal to countenance any evidence that runs counter to her own perceived experience, together with her determination to force the airport to recreate quiet skies over her home that had never been there, will mean, I fear, she will remain in a bitter and desperate place.  She is clinging to a ‘reality’ which never existed.

Or take Nigel with his belief that Heathrow has falsified all data before the 2014 trials.  As long as he holds on to that belief, neither fellow campaigners nor Heathrow can really do anything for him.  

Or this tweet from the Surrey resident, Bill: “As the local Heathrow consultation and special Heathrow Q&A events are coming up this Saturday and next Friday, noise in the area has almost been restored to pre-2012 levels. Funny how that was ‘impossible’. Let’s see how long that lasts once events over”.  It is fantastical to believe that Heathrow’s entire flight path operation has been re-jigged to fit in with a local consultation event in a village.  But if he believes, as he seems to, that nothing but manipulation and lies can come out of Heathrow and the aviation industry, he has actually lost any real hope that change is possible and so, in a vicious downward spiral, is likely to become ever more despairing and ever more cynical.

2. Damaging the ability to work with fellow campaigners

I don’t want to exaggerate this as, historically, many campaigns, orchestrated by driven, even deluded people have put enough pressure on the authorities to bring about change.  And today a number of campaigners against a third runway at Heathrow who don’t suffer from delusions find the evangelical zeal of the deluded individuals useful in their fight and so I suspect are not inclined to delve too deeply into their strange view of the world.

But there is obvious scope for tension if campaigners are coming from fundamentally different starting points.  It is very difficult for one group of residents who know that aircraft noise has been a problem in their area for many decades to link up effectively with those who believe it just started recently.  They will be looking for different outcomes and the tone and tenor their campaigns are likely to be very different.

Moreover, the ‘Susans’ of this world, with this cult-like certainty that their experience trumps anybody else’s view, will become intolerant of fellow-campaigners who don’t share their view of reality with the result that the anger they feel towards the aviation industry will be extended towards their fellow campaigners who then will have little choice but to walk away.  The cult will have become a divisive force.

3.  Damaging their credibility with the aviation industry and Government

Again, I don’t want to exaggerate this.  Companies and governments can buckle to irrational forces if they are under sufficient threat.  And if groups, however irrational their beliefs, are campaigning for real, concrete changes, they can have an impact.  But when campaign groups are endorsing tweets like : “as the local Heathrow consultation and special Heathrow Q&A events are coming up this Saturday and next Friday, noise in the area has almost been restored to pre-2012 levels”, as they have done, they damage their credibility and, unless they change, limit their long-term effectiveness.  

So, what can be done?

Normally, I would say lay the facts in front of people and they will get the picture.  But that is not working.  The facts are rejected if they don’t match their personal experiences.  Perhaps counselling would work, although I’m not sure as these people don’t accept their view of the world is unreal; counselling may well be regarded as just another industry ‘trick’.  But I’m a campaigner when it probably needs a psychologist to come up with the answers. 

Social media doesn’t help as it allows the deluded to re-enforce each other’s delusions. 

In the short term, perhaps it is just a question of all of us – campaigners, the aviation industry and Government – being aware these people are coming from a parallel universe, assess their demands in that light and make sure that their shrill, desperate voices aren’t allowed to dominate the debate.

John Stewart

Independant Parallel Approaches (IPA)

An interim measure

Heathrow wants to bring in 25,000 more flights a year between 2022 and when any new runway opens (expected to be 2026).

To do this, it is proposing that these extra flights use new dedicated flight paths.

These flight paths would only be in existence during those years.  If a third runway opens they would cease.  Only if Heathrow remains a two runway airport would they continue.

Why are they being brought in?

At present when planes land over London, they switch runways at 3pm to give people in West London a break from the noise.  However, Heathrow is allowed to land a small number of planes on the ‘wrong’ runway, i.e. out of alternation, if delays are building up.   Between 7pm and 11pm, this currently amounts to 15 a day. For the hour between 6am and 7am when Heathrow has always been allowed to use both runways for landings there are currently 16/18 flights an hour landing on the ‘departures’ runway. 

The problem Heathrow has right now is that two planes can’t land on parallel runways at the same time.  This means that, in order to allow a plane to land on the ‘wrong’ runway, the gap between planes landing on the other runway has to be extended, thus reducing capacity. IPA is an attempt to get round this.  

What is Heathrow proposing?

New direct flight paths will be introduced from the holding stacks to the airport for planes coming in on the ‘wrong’ runway.  At this stage we don’t know exactly where these flight paths will be.  

The new flight paths

What Heathrow has published are the broad areas where one or more of these new flight paths may be.  The areas are outlined here: 

At this stage the fact you are in an area only means you might have a flight path overhead.  The detailed flight paths will not be published and consulted on until 2020.

There will be at least one new flight path from each of the ‘holding stacks’ (the places where planes wait before being guided down to Heathrow).

There are four of these:

  • Bovingdon (near Amersham)
  • Lambourne (near Epping)
  • Ockham (near Leatherhead)
  • Biggin Hill (near Bromley)

For operational reasons there will be fewer flight paths from the Biggin Hill stack.

The nature of the flight paths

They will be dedicated flight paths, reserved for these additional planes.  They will be narrow and concentrated.

How many aircraft will use them?

Between the hour of 6am and 7am, there will be a maximum of 25 flights.  That is not per flight path but across all the flight paths.  Heathrow expects the typical figure may be a total of about 18 flights.

Between 7am and 11pm, Heathrow expects there will be no more than a total of 15 planes across all the flight paths with a maximum of 40.

What about heights?

The planes will be at the same height as existing aircraft. 

Will I get both departures and landings?

Heathrow is saying that they will try to ensure that areas which currently experience departures will not have one of these new flight paths.

Are we really more noise sensitive?

Those all important numbers

One of the most significant, and most welcome, sentences in the Government’s Aviation Green Paper (1) is this:

“the government recognises that statistics showing past and future improvements in noise do not necessarily match the experience of some people living under flightpaths, for whom the benefits of quieter aircraft can be cancelled out by greater frequency of movements or the effects of concentrated traffic associated with more accurate navigation technology” 

It is official recognition that, for many people, it is the number of planes overhead that is the all-important factor in how disturbed they are by the noise.

And the Government expects a big increase in aircraft numbers by 2050:

The table, taken from a major study the Government commissioned from the CAA (2) shows increases at individual airports of up to 83% (with an average just under 40%).

The CAA study found that, despite the projected increase in flight numbers, the numbers people impacted by noise would fall.

The study, the most comprehensive ever undertaken to assess future noise levels, found that the fall would be greater if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of new homes will havebeen built in the impacted areas by 2050.

The CAA study also found that the number of people highly annoyed by noise would fall at most airports.

The main reason why the CAA expects numbers to fall is the progressive introduction of less noise aircraft.

It is not the purpose of this blog to criticise the CAA's study. It would be arrogant and ignorant to do so. It is an impressive piece of work. All this blog wants to do is to make the case that the total number of aircraft passing over a community may be the all important factor.

The prime – and very often only concern – for most people is how many planes go over their own community.  They are much less interested in the total number of aircraft using the airport or even how many runways it has.  And most of them have little interest in other communities.

The challenge, therefore, for the industry and governments is to find a way to cap number of flights over any one community.  

This is likely to require the introduction of multiple flight paths.  This can be made possible by new technology.  Across the world airports are moving from ground-based technology to a satellite system to guide planes in and out of airports.  It is known as Performance Based Navigation (PBN).  PBN will mean the introduction of narrow, precision flight paths.  If a number of them can be introduced at any airport, they can then be rotated, to give each community some respite from the noise and thereby cap the number of aircraft going over any one area.  It would allow for some growth at the airport while protecting local communities.

The Green Paper spells out what can be done to provide respite:

The Green Paper not only proposes multiple flight paths as an option for airports to consider but also proposes a noise cap or noise reduction plans for airports.

These all could be useful tools for capping flight numbers over communities.

A noise cap can be more than a movement cap.  The Green Paper says: “A noise cap (also known as a noise envelope) is any measure which restricts noise. In its crudest form this could be a simple movement cap, but the government proposes advocating caps which are based on setting maximum noise exposure levels (such as contour area or noise quota).”  It could also include heights of aircraft, compensation packages and night flights.

But, while there is a clear upside to capping, there are two downside which would need to be addressed.   The first is the introduction of multiple flight paths might necessitate the creation of flight paths over new areas.   In my view, the latter should be avoided wherever possible – it is a brutal act to create a new flight path and would result in a lot of people becoming very angry and annoyed.  It should only be done if it is the only way to benefit communities currently under a flight path.  

The second is that at single runway airports – the vast majority in most countries – people under the final approach path cannot by definition benefit from multiple flight paths.  They should be first in line for a generous compensation and mitigation package.  But, if the time comes when any of these communities, even with good mitigation, cannot tolerate any more noise, perhaps that it is the signal that their particular airport has reached the point where further growth is no longer an option, certainly until much quieter aircraft can be introduced.  

Bobby Seagull, who shot to fame in University Challenge a couple of series ago, said that his book The Life-Changing Power of Numbers is part biography, part a love letter to numbers.  I’m not sure I love numbers like that but I suspect aircraft numbers will be critical to the future noise climate experienced by communities.

John Stewart