Flight path changes

Changing its flight paths: Heathrow’s chance to be a beacon for positive change

It’s the other big aviation story.  The focus has been on the third runway at Heathrow.  Perhaps inevitably, given the controversy it creates.  But the other big event over the next decade will be the flight paths changes that will take place at virtually every airport in the UK.  It will signal the biggest change in the use of airspace for over 60 years.  Indeed, it will be a worldwide phenomenon.

Heathrow has said it will be starting from ‘a blank piece of paper’ to put in place what would be the biggest change in flight paths since the airport opened in 1946.  Flight paths will be radically altered even it Heathrow fails in its attempt to build a third runway and remains a two runway airport.  

The change is being driven by new technology.  Precision-Based Navigation (PBN) is being introduced.  It enables planes to be guided more precisely, saving the airlines fuel, cutting CO2 emissions, allowing air traffic control to run a slicker operation with fewer staff and giving airports more resilience, the latter critical at a busy airport like Heathrow.

It can also in my view, if it is introduced well, benefit local communities.  The technology will enable aircraft to be concentrated along narrow flight paths.  That presents both dangers and opportunities.  The danger is that all the planes use those same flight paths all day long.  It is no exaggeration to say that would create noise ghettos.  But the opportunity presented by precision flying is that it enables multiple (concentrated) flight paths to be used and be rotated so each community can get a break from the noise every day.  Certainly for many communities under the Heathrow flight paths that would be an improvement on the situation today.  They don’t get pure concentration but they get all-day flying……and the HACAN mailbox is full of people desperate for a break from it.

There are some in the environmental movement who oppose multiple flight paths and respite.  Their argument is that it could potentially increase capacity at an airport.  If there is no cap on flight numbers at the airport, that may be the case but I believe that, in trying to deny local communities a break from the noise, they are in danger of putting ideology over people’s well-being.

So far the introduction of PBN-driven new flight paths has not been good.  There has been uproar in many American cities when the airports introduced concentrated flight paths without any respite.  When London City concentrated its routes last year complaints shot up four-fold.  Complaints also increased at Luton and Stansted when these airports introduced concentrated routes and no respite.  Gatwick has been forced to backtrack on its new routes and, at the time of writing, Edinburgh proposals, out for consultation, have generated controversy and heated protest meetings.

Belatedly, the Department for Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and air traffic control realized things weren’t working properly.  The CAA has revised its guidance to include much earlier community involvement.  And in its recent consultation on Airspace Strategy, the Department proposed changes to the way new routes are introduced including the importance of respite being included as an option at airports where that is possible and popular. 

These problems experienced at the other airports put even more pressure on Heathrow to get it right.  Heathrow was already aware that, given the numbers under its flight paths, it risked a big-scale community revolt if it got its flight path changes wrong. 

It therefore intends to involve local communities at a very early stage.  It will start consulting on its airspace changes later this summer when it launches a 12 week consultation into the design principles people want to see the flight paths based on.  It will be seeking views on things like whether people want the flight paths concentrated on a few communities or the noise shared around more equally.  By then it will have published a major study into what meaningful respite would look like.

Heathrow will take some months to work up noise envelopes after the consultation on design principles finishes.  In summer 2018 it will consult on these noise envelopes.  The envelopes will show the broad swathes within which there will be flight paths.  They will not include the exact alignment of the flight paths but those who will be outside the swathes will know they will not be under a flight path.  There will be a further consultation on the detailed flight paths, probably late 2020, with a view to the new flight paths being in place by around 2025.

These will not be easy issues, particularly if, in order to give some communities respite, aircraft noise might need to be introduced into new areas.  HACAN will be engaging with the airport in order to try to get the best outcome for residents.  The pressure will be on Heathrow not just because of the numbers of people affected but to show that airspace changes can be introduced in a way which benefits residents.  Heathrow really does have the chance to be a beacon for positive change.  No pressure then?! 

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