Respite can be real

Flight paths can be moved around London to give people respite from the noise.  The skies between Walthamstow and Leytonstone used to be criss-crossed by aircraft heading for Heathrow.  They are now virtually empty.  Only the irritating roar of planes taking off from City Airport spoils the silence.  It is not an official trial.  I don’t know why it has happened.  But it could provide a model for the rest of London.

It’s an area I know well.  Several years ago I moved there from South London to escape aircraft noise.  I thought I had found an oasis of peace and quiet until…..only minutes after acquiring the keys to my new flat I heard the familiar roar overhead.  Not as loud as South London, and night flights not a problem, but nevertheless a pretty constant unwanted companion.  In fact, a survey by HACAN in 2009 showed that the borough – Waltham Forest – was the third most overflown in the capital, after Hounslow and Richmond: 

I am now back living south of the river but during this last long hot summer returned to see an old friend in Leytonstone.   The planes were pouring over the park we visited.  The day after, 15th July, I tweeted:  “Spent yesterday outside under Heathrow & London City flight paths…in Leytonstone! London already under a sky of sound. 3rd runway anyone?”  Now the Heathrow planes have virtually gone.

Check out webtrak: .  You’ll see there are very few planes going over the area.  I noticed it by chance last week when I was up there for the first time in several months.

Why is this potentially so significant and important?  Because periods of respite from the constant noise could make life so much better for so many people in London and the surrounding areas.

At present people in West London enjoy a half day’s break from the noise when planes landing at Heathrow switch runways at 3pm.  It is a life-saver.  But there is no guaranteed break for anybody else.  Check out this HACAN video of life in Vauxhall, 18 miles from Heathrow, with as many as 40 planes an hour flying overhead: (note: the opinions expressed represent those of the residents; not necessarily HACAN).

It was because people in places like Vauxhall were so desperate for a break from the noise that HACAN joined with Heathrow Airport, British Airways and National Air Traffic Control (NATS) last year in a trial to give people respite from noise at night.  The trial was not altogether successful in that it resulted in some areas experiencing more noise than they should have done but it did give relief to over 100,000 residents:   

Respite has to be the way forward.  Heathrow is with us for the foreseeable future; and probably for good, unless Boris gets his island or Stansted becomes a 3 or 4 runway airport.  And, barring the unlikely event of the people of London and the South East taking direct action in protest at the noise, the number of flights using the airport is not likely to fall below its current cap any time soon.

Official respite periods might not, though, be right for every area.  It almost certainly would work for somewhere like Vauxhall, with 40 planes an hour.  But in some places still further from the airport where the planes are higher and the numbers are less, periods of respite followed by periods of more intensive use may not be the best way forward.  This needs to be tested through trials.

NATS, in conjunction with Heathrow Airport and the airlines, will be conducting further trials over the coming two years to test out respite periods.  This will be done in the lead-up to a fundamental re-jigging of flight paths around 2015/6.  As part of a European scheme known as SESAR, airspace in London and the South East will be re-organised to allow it to be used more effectively.  It should enable aircraft to be operated in a more streamlined and fuel-efficient way.

It is also a potential opportunity to assist residents under the flight paths.  New technology is coming in which allows aircraft to be guided much more precisely.  The lazy way for this to work would be to concentrate the aircraft into one or two narrow bands, creating what would become, in effect, noise ghettos.

The alternative is respite periods, where the noise is shared around.  The good news is that this is the direction things are going at Heathrow.  NATS needs to be ambitious if it is to take full advantage of the opportunities opening up.  What’s happened in North East London shows that flight paths can be moved around; that real respite can become a reality even at a busy airport like Heathrow.  The old Leytonstone flat…it’s tempting again.  What do you been the rent has doubled………….  

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