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

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