The Airport Commission’s report could be a game-changer. But not necessarily in the most obvious way. New runways dominated the headlines last week when its chairman, Sir Howard Davies, published the report. Inevitably so. Gatwick or Heathrow. It is a big story. And, if the report does result in a new runway being built in London and the South East, it will be very big indeed.
But Davies was also asked to look at aviation noise policy. And it is here he has developed proposals which, if implemented, could be game-changing. Indeed, even if they are not all taken forward, he has prised open a door that had been fairly firmly closed for a long time. Importantly, though some of his proposals are Heathrow-specific, many are UK -wide.
The most eye-catching of his proposals is a legally-binding ban on scheduled night flights between 11.30pm and 6am if a third runway is built at Heathrow. He argues that the new runway would provide the capacity to relocate the 16 flights which currently land between 4.30am and 6am to land just after 6 o’clock. The Commission looked at the experience of Frankfurt which banned flights between midnight and 5am after its controversial fourth runway opened in 2011. It found that the economy of Frankfurt did not crumble; nor did Lufhanza’s profits tumble. This reinforces an earlier finding in work done by Tim Leunig for the Policy Institute that a ban on night flights at Heathrow is operationally achievable and not damaging to the economy. (That is not the case of a ban until 7am). Heathrow has not yet committed to a ban. It will need to speak to its biggest customer, British Airways, but, if it was the price of getting a new runway, I’m pretty certain they would introduce it. And, if Heathrow banned night flights, there would be pressure on other airports in the UK and in the rest of Europe to so much the same.
Davies has bought into the concept of respite. This is the idea where residents under flight paths are guaranteed, wherever possible, predicable breaks from the noise. He has made it a condition of a new runway going ahead at Heathrow but his clear endorsement of the concept will mean that other airports will be under pressure to introduce it. This is, of course, particularly timely given the reorganization of flight paths that will take place over the next five years – regardless of what happens on runways – in order to allow more effective use to be made of airspace.
Davies has also the promoted the idea of an independent noise authority. The details of this body have yet to be worked out but its main role would be to ensure fair play between local communities, the airport and other key decision-makers. Heathrow has worked hard in recent years to improve its working relationship with the local community but this is not the case at many of the smaller airports in the country. An independent noise authority would have a particularly important role to play at these airports.
Finally, post-Davies, the Government and others will struggle to go back to the old, discredited way of measuring noise annoyance. This sounds technical but it is critical in getting policy-making correct. If the level of annoyance is underestimated, it would underestimate the impact of new runways or changed flight paths on the population. The Government’s preferred noise contour – known as 57 LAeq – excluded places like Putney and Fulham as areas where people were significantly disturbed by aircraft noise from Heathrow. Simply not reality! Davies has recommended that airports and the Government use a suite of metrics to convey and more accurate and realistic picture of where noise occurs.
HACAN worked constructively with the Airports Commission in the work it was doing on noise. In recent years we have also worked closely with Heathrow on noise matters. Things are changing. Whatever happens to runways as a result of the Davies report it has left a potentially game-changing legacy with its work on noise.