Living under the flight path to Heathrow – before, during and after Covid-19

In March, 2020, the Corona virus, a global pandemic we’d only heard about a couple of months before, reached our shores and on the 23rd March the whole of the UK went into lockdown.   We stayed at home, learned how to wash our hands, understood the term socially distant, became wary of touching everything and anything, ran out of sanitizer and loo paper, and, more seriously PPE, (personal protective equipment). The streets emptied, the shops, parks and the whole of the hospitality industry closed, and we wondered how we were going to feed ourselves as Supermarkets became dangerous places. 

But in defiance of all this, the weather in the UK changed from the wind and excessive rain of Jan and Feb into an unimaginably ethereal spring.   The sun shone out of a clear blue sky and for those of us living under the flight path to Heathrow, a miracle happened: THE PLANES STOPPED. 

We could hear bird song, wind blowing in the new-leaved trees, the honk of geese taking off from the Thames, the quack of ducks or moorhens.   We could sit in the garden – it was warm enough – and hear ourselves think.  For weeks we could forget what it was like to anticipate the constant drone of planes overhead, and stop imagining pollution, like an invisible gas, drifting down on to all of us living in Kew.  

I live in Kew under flightpath 27R, of planes landing at Heathrow.  At the moment we have no take-offs, but that could change.  The prevailing wind is from the west about 70% of the time.  Before lockdown this meant that for 70% of the year, planes landing at Heathrow from  the east, have to fly over the whole of the densely-populated area of most of London to land on one of the two runways.  When they reach Barnes they take one of two flight paths – 27R for aircraft approaching the northern runway, and 27L for aircraft approach the southern runway.  Known as alternation, this is meant to give respite from noise, but by the time planes reach Kew the distance between the two paths is so narrow that it is possible hear and see planes on both flight paths i.e. ALL DAY and some of the night. 

To understand what this means here are the facts before lockdown:

  • About 650 planes a day land at Heathrow and in rush hour, air traffic controllers sometimes have to land one plane every 45 seconds
  • At Kew, 10 nautical miles from Heathrow, the minimum height of incoming planes between 6am and 11pm should be 2500ft and at night 3000ft.  Most of the time they feel and look much lower.
  • Between 11pm and 6am there are sixteen night flights
  • From 6am to 7am planes land on both runways with an even shorter time between flights landing,;  the sound never completely dies away before the sound of the next plane can be heard gradually getting louder and louder
  • Between 7am and 3pm planes will take one of the flight paths and switch to the alternate flight path from 3pm to 11 pm.

Nearly a year later in January 2021 Heathrow remained busy compared with other airports around London.  Nevertheless, on Thursday 21st Jan 2021 Heathrow handled 211 ‘movements’ (total departures and arrivals) compared to roughly 1,223 ‘movements’ on a day in January 2020 .

This state affairs will return after we get through the pandemic and may get worse.  Airspace is being re-organised and may mean that the half–day respite of flights will be reduced. If the third runway is built, the current 480,000 of plane ‘movements’  per annum will increase.   There will a third flight path less than mile further north than the current ‘northern’ flight path, 27R.  There are rumours of our area being under the flight path of departures as well as arrivals.  The noise and pollution will inevitably increase.

Heathrow is a hungry animal.  In a kind of semi-hibernation at the moment, we are assured it will wake up and return with a vengeance.  Under the threat of climate change, we have to break the pattern which says that commercial considerations of the economy are more important than the well-being and physical and mental health of the hundreds of thousands of people living within twenty miles of the airport.  The pandemic has shown us that it is not always necessary to jump on a plane for business purposes, and if we have a conscience we should avoid flying for pleasure as much as possible.  We have to question the inexorable growth of Heathrow, or any airport, and instead be looking at how to reduce noise and pollution for everyone’s benefit and the good of the world.

Harriet Grace

16 thoughts on “Living under the flight path to Heathrow – before, during and after Covid-19”

  1. I endorse every word.
    The tranquillity this last year has been wonderful. .
    I dread the return of constant aircraft noise.

  2. Superb research capturing brilliantly our experience of living near Kew Gardens. It has been such a relief to have had respite from the intrusive and relentless noise during the time of Covid.

  3. Excellent article from Harriet Grace and I agree with every word. It is a disgrace that a third runway is even being considered with all we now know about the climate crisis and every effort indeed should be made to reduce the number of flights. Harriet’s comments about commercial interests being paramount is spot on and we must protest strongly against this.

  4. Well written Harriet, and I agree entirely. Did you know that Heathrow operates a system of approach over London even when the wind is a light easterly wind or even when there is no wind at all? (Planes have to land and take off into the wind.) This is known as a “Westerly Preference” and to me it makes no sense at all to inflict an even greater number of landings over London than the prevailing westerly wind would dictate anyway. There must be a reason for it…. perhaps HACAN knows the answer? We would probably have 5 – 10% fewer approaches over London if the Westerly Preference were scrapped or better still, reversed.

  5. Sorry, Harriet, but I cannot agree. I was born in Kew Gardens Road some four years before Heathrow opened as “London Airport” so I have experienced its entire history so far. In about 1950, my father showed me an overflying Dakota, probably heading for Northolt, and explained how to recognise it. In 1952 the Illustrated London News published a page of pictures of airliners and somebody gave me the Observer’s Book of Aircraft. From then I was hooked and have been an enthusiastic plane spotter and lover ever since. I miss them when the wind is in the wrong direction. My mother said that I would have been a dull boy if I hadn’t got interested in the planes flying over. I learned to identify them by their sound, which is sadly much less possible with jets. I resent every time I have to go to Gatwick or somewhere instead of my lovely Heathrow. I have no problem with “noise” that can’t even be heard over the South Circular traffic. Ditto so-called pollution. Anybody who complains about noise should have heard the Super Constellations and early Boeing 707s of the late 1950s, which literally shook the entire house and rattled the windows. Planes have been getting steadily quieter ever since and nobody ever died of noise. It is obvious that aviation is going to be one of the last things to be able to go green so let’s concentrate on bigger and easier targets first, in the knowledge that there is plenty of research going on into greener technologies for flight some day not too far off.

    1. 1. Your views are clearly rose-tinted by nostalgia around aircraft due to your father’s influence some 70 years ago – before aircraft noise pollution was even an issue.

      2. I highly suspect you no longer live in Kew or under the flight path as you simply say you were born there. I suspect this has left you unable to fully comprehend that the negative impact that consistent noise pollution has on sleep, and hence on heart, mental, and general health is enormous, and thus your belief that noise pollution never killed anyone is entirely false.

  6. Given how selfishly people use parks I doubt without government mandate people will reduce their number of flights per year. Infact I think they’ll increase them “making the most” of the ability to travel when it’s allowed. We need to vote for politicians who care about the environment over relentless growth numbers.

  7. When I moved to Richmond, T4 was being built. This was the final terminal. A few years later, the need for T5 arose and I remember clearly how, this, for sure, would not trigger the need for a third runway. What next?

  8. Thank you Harriet. My experience has been as yours, plus my experience of being able to breath fresher cleaner air.
    I dread the return of the noise and pollution.
    Cecile Channon.

  9. A terrific, thought provoking article. The addiction to air travel has been an increasing blight and it seems likely to get worse to the detriment of us all, especially those, such a Harriet, living under the flight path.

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