Fair Flight Paths

Fair Flight Paths

The UK will have it’s airspace modernised over the next few years, and this will mean, what the industry has described as, ‘once in a lifetime’ changes.

Naturally, with so much at stake, communities up and down the country (particularly the already overflown) are concerned to ensure that the process delivers fair outcomes, and fair flight paths. This is a reasonable expectation.

The CAA and NATs are leading principally on the design of the new flight paths and essentially have peoples’ lives in their hands. Designed well, flight paths can be a revelation; designed badly they can be a death sentence.

The current principle for flight path design is that of ‘least people’. Although this may be efficient, it is hardly fair (fair is about treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination). It is also worthwhile remembering that most systems require scope for adjustment. Ruthlessly pursuing the ‘least people’ principle can be seen in:

  • Centreline concentration – this has been raised time, and time again by communities who argue for greater dispersal (distribution) of noise. Not only is this feasible, it is fair. It is even fairer to people who may also have to endure concentrated arrivals also for part of the time. 
  • Over use of concentrated flight paths to hammer the same people again, and again. While this may be very efficient, again, it isn’t very fair.

There are significant perceived and known health risks associated with such an approach, such as cardio vascular disease/hypertension, and premature death, as well as stress, anxiety, depression, including severe depression (with increased suicide risk potential). 

Other concerns around concentrated flight paths concern equalisation. All flight paths are not equal, and while they may look similar in terms of a line on a chart they may have completely different impacts. To be ‘equalised’, and fairer, we need to understand that we are comparing like with like (or as near as). So the volume of traffic, intensity, aircraft mix (there are ‘tiddler’ aircraft and monsters), altitude and proximity to properties really tell the story. 

Noise averages, paradoxically, as in noise contours appear to be insufficiently sensitive to identify what could be a micro noise ghetto or hotspot. Here several flight paths may converge (perhaps as many as three) delivering perhaps 3 times the noise as any of the individual ones. Is this fair? And if it isn’t how do we equalise it, or at least try to make it a little fairer? Arguing about it, if you are a minnow in a pond of bigger fish is, on its own, unlikely to resolve it, and overtime it is likely to get worse as even more traffic is dispersed over your head. 

While the ‘least people’ principle can stick, it should be moderated by a ‘least harm’ test. Therefore if challenged, as in the hypothetical case of 3 flight paths into one, a ‘least harm’ test could be applied, enabling the minor rejigging of the flight paths at that point. This might see a neighbour taking a part of the strain. The net effect might then be 710 people affected instead of 709/8 (whatever) but the lives saved for the otherwise overdone original target. This is the importance of flexibility, challenge, integrity, and (pragmatic) adjustment in a system.

So, while we all probably want, and need, fair flight paths I truly worry how this is going to be fairly delivered in practice.