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