Respite: Desirable? Practicable? Inevitable?

Here are some thoughts on why HACAN is backing respite.

People under the landing flight path in West London have had respite since the 1970s.  Planes landing at Heathrow switch runways at 3pm to give people a half day’s break from the noise.  Our members in West London tell us that this is what makes life bearable for them and, in the past, have taken to the streets to defend it.

For as long as I’ve been involved with HACAN (late 1990s), people under the approach path west of the airport – in places like Windsor – have lobbied for the end of the Cranford Agreement so they could get rid of all-day flying and get the respite enjoyed by West London.  With Cranford coming to an end, that will happen.

For almost as long, people in South East London have been calling for some respite from the noise.  Since 1996 when the point at which many more planes were guided on to their final approach path several miles further east than previously areas like Peckham, Clapham and the Oval rarely get less than 20 planes an hour and can get over 40. (It also applied to places like Henley to the west of the airport).  It is not pure concentration.  There is still an element of dispersal, particularly the further east you go.  But, judging from the emails and phone calls HACAN has got for well over a decade, people don’t like it.  The overwhelming demand is for periods of respite – predicable breaks from the noise – even if that means concentration at other times.  HACAN reflects this view in calling for respite.

I accept that the experience of some people under the departure routes is different.  For many years take-offs were dispersed across the Noise Preferential Route (NPRs) which have been in place since the 1960s.  Over the last decade or so aircraft technology enabled planes to be concentrated more and more on the centre-line of the NPRs.  Again, reflecting the views of our members and supporters, has always opposed this concentration.

Its impact became more apparent to more people during the 2014 trials when certain areas, like Teddington and Ascot, were bombarded with concentrated routes.  Living under them was sheer hell for many people and, even though the trials have ended, the experience has lead people to call for dispersal of the departures.

The other question which must be faced is whether the new technology makes some element of concentration inevitable for both landings and departures.  The technology allows for aircraft to be guided much more precisely.  It would enable concentrated routes to be introduced at every airport.  That would save the airlines money and bring some relatively small reduction in the amount of CO2 emitted by each aircraft.  It would also reduce the number of air traffic controllers that would be required.  And, if coordinated across continents (as is beginning to happen), it would make more effective use of airspace.

Given these advantages to the industry, there is worldwide momentum to it happening.  It will drive the UK Government’s consultation on airspace changes later this year.  As campaigners, we have to ask ourselves:  can we stop this (even if we wanted to)?  In my view, it would require local residents to protest at airports around the world on a scale never before seen.  I am not at all sure that is going to happen.

The alternative is to embrace the new technology and ensure it works in favour of residents as well as the industry.  That has not happened airports in America where brutally concentrated routes were introduced.  Under pressure from residents a lot of the airports are being forced to row back and introduce an element of respite.  But the principle of precision navigation remains; it is simply being accompanied by respite.

Nearly a decade ago HACAN saw the danger of what could happen if pure concentration was introduced.  We therefore started a long, strategic lobbying campaign to forestall it by ensuring the respite became an option engrained in Government policy and put in practice in a meaningful way at Heathrow.  We also knew from the emails we received from members and supporters who were getting dozens of planes an hour that they believed the new technology could work for them if it shared the burden.

And by sharing the burden they did not mean putting it to new areas.  Let me give an example of how it could work in South East London.  Aircraft could go over the Bermondsey, Vauxhall close to the river for a third of the day; the central area of Peckham and Stockwell for another third; and over Brixton Hill to the south for the final third of the day.  All areas currently overflown.  I stress this is just an example.  But, it was feasible, so many residents tell us it would improve their lives immeasurably.  Some tell us that it would be the difference between staying where they are moving house.

Of course all this has to be tested to see if it is practicable.  And also how far apart flight paths need to be to provide meaningful respite for the noise.  That is why we are backing Heathrow’s decision to commission an independent study into what respite could look like.  Heathrow, I believe, want to get future flight paths (and flight paths will change with or without a third runway) to work for both the industry and residents.  That is our position also.

Jock Lowe, the former Concorde pilot, who is heading up the Heathrow Hub bid, has promoting innovative curved approaches to Heathrow.  They have real potential to increase the amount of respite any one community can enjoy.  Some in the industry have cast doubts about the feasibility of all Jock’s ideas but few deny that they will be part of the mix in the airspace change that are to come. 

Of course meaningful respite for departures is going to be difficult.  The existing Noise Preferential Routes are narrow.  Creating new ones would be controversial.  The industry may need to accept an element of dispersal.  We hope the Heathrow-commissioned study – the first of its kind in the world – will throw up feasible options.

Of course, respite is not the whole answer.  Heights of aircraft are important.  Good insulation can help.  But, given the new technology now available to the industry and the inevitability of precision navigation technology I feel that meaningful respite will be essential to protect residents.  Done well, it could improve the current situation for many communities.  A lot of them a banking on it.     

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