2018 could turn out to be a significant year for communities impacted by Heathrow. It is highly likely a decision on a third runway will be made. But it will also be the year when Heathrow will begin the biggest change to its flight paths since it opened in 1946.
The airspace changes are being driven by the introduction at airports across the world of new technology called Performance Based Navigation (PBN). In essence, it means that aircraft will be guided more precisely as they land and take-off. The norm will be flight paths along a few, predicable, concentrated routes. This will allow more aircraft to use an airport, cut fuel costs for airlines, reduce CO2 emissions from each aircraft, improve the resilience of airports and probably cut the number of air traffic controllers required.
Performance Based Navigation is not, in my view, an optional process which any one airport can opt out of or any one community can successfully challenge. Hundreds of airports across the globe have already introduced it. It has the backing of governments. The aviation industry has spent huge sums of money on it. In Europe the industry has invested 2.5 billion euros in PBN on which it expects to get a return of 4.4 billion euros. And in America, it is estimated PBN improvements have accrued $1.6 billion of benefits since 2010 and it is expected that by 2030, the total benefits of PBN improvements will be $160.6 billion, at a cost of $35.8 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation industry.
Opposing PBN is not a realistic option. Our challenge as campaign groups is to shape it so it works for our communities. Heathrow’s consultation on the design principles to inform its new flight paths, starting on 17th January, gives us an early opportunity to start to do so.
Understandably, the prospect of changes to our air space generates a range of deep emotions. Communities not currently overflown fear they might be. People in the parts of West London which get a half day’s break from the noise are afraid it might be lost or modified. People under take-off routes, which have become a lot more concentrated over the decade, fear more of the same. But others, such as many communities in South East London or in the Reading area, plagued at present by random all-day flying, would welcome fixed flight paths which would give them some relief from the constant noise.
Fixed flights paths of course mean concentration. And the relentlessness of concentrated flying – the staple diet of PBN – causes real fear. The new technology will concentrate flight paths but – and here is the potential community benefit – its accuracy should also allow for multiple concentrated flight paths to be created. If these flight paths were to be rotated, it opens up the possibility of meaningful periods of respite for impacted communities. (And, I suspect, further from the airport – over 20 miles or so – some dispersal). Although Heathrow Airport is committed to introducing respite where possible, it will not be an easy process, particularly if there are voices within the industry which might resist changes if they are seen as too difficult or too inconvenient. Our task will be to challenge that attitude and shape the new PBN world so that it works for communities as well as the industry.
It will be a big task. We are most likely to succeed the more united we are. And we are most likely to achieve that unity and success if our campaign is firmly rooted in the principle of fairness and equity. It’s a principle we doubtless all sign up to in theory but, in practice, we are keeping a watchful eye – perhaps even an NIMBY eye – as to what the flight path changes may mean for our street! This is wholly understandable as a flight path overhead can be a brutal assault on our senses, particularly if it is over a new area. But, unless a community campaign to shape PBN and future airspace is based on principle – the principle of fairness and equity – it will simply set one community against another. To get this right will be a key challenge for local communities in 2018.
The other big issue of the year will of course be the third runway. Parliament is expected to vote on it before the summer. It will be a surprise if Theresa May does not recommend the go-ahead and gets the backing of most Conservative MPs. The Labour Party’s position is still evolving. There has been a lot of support for a third runway amongst backbench Labour MPs and some of that support will remain solid. But the indications are that the majority of Labour MPs will go along with the position adopted by the Shadow Cabinet.
Labour has set four tests which it says any new runway anywhere must meet if they are to back it. The Shadow Cabinet has still to say whether it believes a third runway at Heathrow does so. If Labour officially comes out against a third runway, the arithmetic looks more interesting but it would still need the bulk of Labour MPs to join up with the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative rebels to have any chance of defeating the Government which would have the backing of the Ulster Unionists and the SNP.
If Parliament backs a third runway, it becomes official Government policy. Heathrow will then start the process of drawing up and consulting on the more detailed plans.
HACAN has had a long record of opposing a new runway because of its potential impacts on the community. That remains our position but later this month we will be publishing a list of six tough conditions which we think the Government should insist on if a third runway goes ahead.
Most of our members are clear: they don’t want a third runway but, if it does go ahead, they want HACAN to fight for the best deal for communities. We will start that process in 2018.
So, 2018 will be a significant year but, for most of our members, it will also be much of the same. They are living with the noise, with the night flights which wake them up and, in many cases, with all-day flying. For them, dealing with these bread-and-butter issues is as important as the longer term prospect of a third runway or new flight paths. Our pledge to them: in 2018 won’t let the high-profile issues of new runways and flight paths distract us from lobbying for immediate improvements to the current situation.