Heathrow flight path changes

It is not often you get to design your own flight path.  But that could happen over the next couple of years at Heathrow.  We won’t get to draw precise line on maps.  So, forget about putting it over the home of your worst enemy!  But Heathrow will be consulting about the principles on which flight paths should be based.

It is prompted by what will be the biggest change in flight paths since the airport opened in 1946.  This will happen whether Heathrow remains a two runway airport or whether a third runway is built.

It is driven by new technology which allows aircraft to be guided more precisely.  It will allow for more efficient use of airspace, enable airlines to cut costs and save fuel, reduce CO2 emissions, improve the resilience of airports (important at somewhere like Heathrow) and allow air traffic control to run a slicker operation using fewer staff.

Heathrow has no alternative but to introduce the new technology known as Precision-Based Navigation (PBN).  Aircraft and air traffic control systems across the world are being adapted and modernized to enable it to become the standard operating practice.

Heathrow’s challenge is to find ways to ensure it operates in the interest of local community as well as the aviation industry. It has watched other airports in the UK and America introduce it with almost uniformly disastrous consequences for the local communities.  It knows, given the huge number of people impacted by Heathrow, it cannot afford to get it wrong.

The big mistake most other airports made was to use the precision technology to concentrate their routes so that the communities under those narrow bands were subject to all-day flying without a break.  Noise ghettos were created and residents rebelled.  Lawsuits are being filed in America.  Complaints increased four-fold at London City. Communities are up in arms at Luton, Stansted and Gatwick (where vectoring changes that concentrated some routes took place).

Watching this unfolding disaster, Heathrow has decided to involve residents at an early stage. In two or three months time, Heathrow will consult the public on the design principles that should inform its new flight paths – for example, the importance people put on periods of respite if routes become concentrated.

Heathrow says it will be starting from ‘a blank piece of paper’.  The prospect of flight path changes can be frightening but many of our HACAN members and supporters see it as an opportunity to get rid of the all-day flights which has blighted their lives for decades.  They favour the introduction of multiple flight paths, rotated, to give them predicable periods of relief from the noise.  And see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make this happen.

There are three concerns emerging amongst communities.  One is the sheer dread of concentration without a break. But that is highly unlikely to happen at Heathrow as the airport has bought into the concept of respite and, indeed, will be publishing a ground-breaking report into what meaningful respite might look like later this summer.

The second big concern comes from the areas in West London, relatively close to the airport, which already enjoy predicable flight paths and a half day’s break from the noise when planes landing over London switch runways at 3pm.  Many people have built their lives around this long-established pattern and fear the consequences should it be changed.

The third worry is about take off flight paths.  At present there are Noise Preferential Routes (three kilometres wide) which departing aircraft must use until they reach 4,000ft. In recent years aircraft have become much more concentrated down the centre-line of the NPRs.  This has caused real problems for the communities right underneath them.  Looking forward, the questions being asked are whether the new technology can allow for the routes to be varied within the NPRs and/or whether new NPRs would need to be introduced.  The latter would almost certainly involve planes flying over new areas which brings its own issues.

Precision-Based Navigation that does not involve pure concentration is more challenging for departures than arrivals.  In my view, the positive thing is that Heathrow is involving local communities at the earliest possible stage.

In the second half of 2018 Heathrow will have a second consultation.  This will be on noise envelopes it has drawn up based on the design principles it will consult on this year.  The noise envelopes will outline the areas where the flight paths will go rather than the details of the flight paths themselves. 

The detailed flight paths are not expected to emerge until a couple of years later.  They will obviously be dependent on whether Heathrow by then knows it can plan for a third runway.  But, even if a third runway does not happen, Heathrow will be starting from a blank piece of paper to residents the flight paths at a two-runway airport.  The prospect may generate concern or hope (maybe dependent on where you live) but the changes, driven by new technology world-wide, will happen.  They are the biggest changes for 50 years and may well last another half-century.  Ours in the generation which can shape these changes.  It is both a daunting and exciting prospect.              

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