Different reactions to aircraft noise

Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a big hit with their 1983 song Two Tribes to War.  It is a bit like that with aircraft noise.  Not so much war, perhaps; just mutual incomprehension.  People who are deeply disturbed by aircraft noise just can’t understand why their next-door neighbour hardly hears the planes.  And the neighbour dismisses the noise sufferer next door as either cranky or using the noise to cover up their real concern: the price of their house.

Just how noise affects people is a key question – perhaps the key question – in assessing the impacts of a third runway at Heathrow.  Heathrow Airport is carrying out useful focus group research in an attempt to find the answer.

The numbers under the Heathrow flight paths are well-known:  currently over 725,000; a third runway would add around another 150,000.  What is much less clear is how many of these people are, or will be, deeply disturbed by aircraft noise.

However, there is some research to help us find that answer.  It is estimated that about one in ten people are particularly noise-sensitive.  According to the German psychologist, Rainer Guski, these people are likely to become more annoyed by noise than the general population.

But there are other factors at play.  I summarized them in my book Why Noise Matters, published by Earthscan in 2011: “we are likely to become more annoyed if we believe the noise may be harming our health or putting us in danger.  We can get very annoyed too – even desperate – if we feel we have no control over the noise or we cannot stop it getting worse.  Generally, we are less annoyed if we feel there may be benefits linked to the noise: such as jobs or economic regeneration.  We are also less annoyed if we believe the authorities are doing everything they can to mitigate the effects of it.”

We also know that, although many more people are exposed to traffic noise, there is evidence to show that people become disturbed more quickly by aircraft noise.  It is thought this could be to do with the high-level of low frequency it contains.  In Why Noise Matters I concluded: “Wherever noise has a stronger than average low-frequency component – such as powerful stereo-systems, wind turbines, heavy lorries, high-speed trains – it seems particularly problematic.”

How does all this play out in the communities under the Heathrow flight paths?  Reactions of individuals to aircraft noise could not be more varied.  At HACAN we get angry letters from people who live within touching distance of the airport telling us we are talking nonsense since they have no problem with the noise.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are people 20 miles from the airport who go to their relatives at weekend to escape the noise.  In between, there are a lot of people who feel they can live with the noise (particularly if they were born and brought up under the flight path); and there is the group of people who are annoyed by the noise but not to the extent that it preoccupies them or they grab the first chance to move away when the opportunity presents itself. 

What, then, be the impact of a third runway at Heathrow?

A small number of people would be deeply disturbed by the extra planes.  Heathrow’s early research suggests it will be a lot less than 10%.  I suspect it might be closer to the 10% mark because of the large number of people who would be under a flight path for a first time.  What happened when the fourth runway at Frankfurt opened is instructive.  The shock to the system of a plane coming over every 90 seconds or so brought thousands on to the streets in protest.  These protests still continue well over two years after the runway has been open.  I suspect that Heathrow will try to manage the impact of a new runway better than the Frankfurt authorities did but we can still expect a percentage of lives of be wrecked by the noise.

Heathrow’s problem, though, is less the fact that 10% of people or, if their predictions are right, even fewer, will be utterly disturbed by the noise if a third runway is built but more that it will be 10% of such a high overall number:  with a new runway in place at least 875,000 people will be under the Heathrow flight paths

10% of 875,000 is 87,000 people.  Even 5% is 43,000.  That 43,000 figure is just less than 3 times the total number of people who will be living under a flight path at Gatwick if a second runway is built.  Or about 4 times the total number current affected by noise at Stansted.

Aircraft noise is not the defining issue in the lives of most people living under the Heathrow flight paths.  But it might be the issue that defines whether or not a third runway is ever built at Heathrow.

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