by John Stewart

Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I’ve been taken aback by the sheer fury against the aviation industry which the Coronavirus crisis has unleashed.  I’m not talking about anti-capitalists calling for ‘system change not climate change’.  That was fairly predicable. 

What has come across with the force of a tsunami is the anger and resentment directed at the aviation industry from ordinary residents living under flight paths.  It is as if a lid has been lifted and uncontrolled emotions have poured out like hot lava escaping from a volcanic eruption.

Social media, email inboxes, the mainstream press have been flooded with material railing against industry bail-outs, insufficient testing of people arriving at airports or the merest hint of aviation workers being asked to take a pay cut. I’m not saying there is not truth in some of those accusations.  But the accusations themselves have been dwarfed the sheer fury and frequency with which they are being made.

It is symptomatic of a much deeper anger.  People’s anger doesn’t allow them to acknowledge the industry has any good points.  Well-written articles about the importance of air freight to bring in medicines and essential supplies are met with an embarrassed silence. It’s like what happens in a violent revolution:  good and bad are treated alike and all trampled underfoot.

Fury on this scale must have real roots.  It can, it is true, be reinforced by fellow travellers, particularly on social media, and be as contagious as any virus.  But there has to be more than that behind it.

We need to look at – the aviation industry in particular needs to look at – where this fury is coming from.  A leading campaigner said to me, “the industry didn’t look after us in the good times, why should we be nice to it now?”  And broadly, with some notable exceptions, that’s true:

  • Why did so many American airports choose to put their new concentrated flight paths over just a handful of communities when they could have created multiple routes and rotated them to share out the burden?
  • Why does Charles De Gaulle still land over 150 planes at night when both Frankfurt and Heathrow have periods without scheduled flights?
  • Why is Luton Council, the owner of the airport, the judge and jury of when it breaks its own planning regulations?
  • Why does Newcastle refuse to even consider giving residents respite?
  • Why did Glasgow Airport turn a deaf ear for over a decade to calls for insulation from residents who have planes just 400ft above them?

All these problems could have been sorted without affecting the viability of the aviation industry.  The industry knows that.  Residents know that.  In these cases, and many more, the industry felt it could ignore the residents almost at will.  We begin to see where the fury and the anger have come from.

Research shows that people become more annoyed if they feel that any industry, any company is not doing all it can to mitigate its downsides.

There are signs in the UK things will improve.  ICCAN, the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise, is due to publish a best practice guide later this very year and ICCAN’s very presence should improve the industry’s behaviour.  The Government’s Aviation White Paper, also out later this year, is expected to introduce tougher standards on noise, sound insulation and community engagement.

And there are some airports which are doing noticeably better than others.  And there have been welcome initiatives taken across the industry.

But I think what is needed is a new contract between airports and their residents.  A contract where best practice is not just the norm, but is mandatory; where first-class consultation is not just a nice-to-have, but is compulsory; where if residents want respite, the airport needs to provide it; where the provision of sound insulation is not a post-code lottery; where residents help shape the noise policy of the airport and are not merely consulted on it from time to time.  Airports, and perhaps airlines as well, should be required to provide an annual public account showing if and how they have met the regulations.  If they have not, the most effective sanction would a requirement to reduce the number of planes using the airport by, say, 5% in the following year.

I hope that is not unrealistically tough.  But I think something like this is required to abate the fury of residents.  It would not harm the industry, even an industry that is currently on its knees, stricken by the virus, for these sorts of regulations to be met.

The other factor fuelling the fury is the  sheer number of flights now going over so many communities.  Respite in my view should be a no-brainer for the industry.  It is the way to reduce flights numbers over particular communities while allowing some overall growth at the airport.

It would be a mistake at this stage to talk about more taxes on the industry in order to manage demand.  It will take a long time to recover from the lockdown.  The boss of Lufthansa said in the last few days: “It will take months until the global travel restrictions are completely lifted and years until the worldwide demand for air travel returns to pre-crisis levels.”

We need the industry to revive.  Aviation has been a critical part of the globalised economy which has over the last few decades has lifted billions out of poverty.  Aviation facilitates trade which brings prosperity and often opens up closed societies.  Moreover, with less than 10% of the world having ever flown, there will be, in time, increased demand for both business and leisure travel.

What many residents fear, though, is return to the bombardment of noise over their heads. I suspect in due course there needs to be some demand management to ensure this doesn’t happen.  Aviation is under-taxed, with no tax on aviation fuel and no VAT on tickets (outside a few countries).  Something like the Frequent Flyers Levy (where each person gets one tax-free return flight each year but tax rises with each subsequent flight) could do the trick.  It would manage demand and maybe reduce it in parts of Europe.  The clever move – and I think the right move – would be to use the revenue from the tax to go to both Governments and the aviation industry for research and development into quieter and cleaner planes by both the public and private sector.  Imposed in the short-term, the tax would be an additional burden for an industry on its knees.  In the medium-term, though, it may well be a key part of the answer which will help abate the anger of residents while bringing benefits to the aviation industry.   

Aircraft Noise and Mental Heath: exploring the problem and some possible solutions


by John Stewart

The research on links between mental health issues and noise is limited.  So far no conclusive evidence has been found that noise causes mental health problems. But what the research has shown is that noise can exacerbate the problems; lead to depression; and that people with mental health issues are more likely to be annoyed by the noise in the first place.

It is worth stressing that, although I’m going to write about aircraft noise, researchers have found that the links between mental health and noise apply to all types of noise.  It is likely, though, aircraft noise will be harder to deal with. 

Given the political will, traffic noise – by far the most prevalent noise – can be cut.  The Dutch researchers den Boer and Schroten (1) estimated that, with the right measures in place, it could be reduced by 70%.  The biggest problem will remain main roads.  Over the years, as side roads have been traffic-calmed and rat-runs closed, traffic has been shunted on to the main roads.  And this has consequences for mental health.  A recent German study (2) identified people ‘with a lower socio-economic status’ as particularly prone to mental health issues.  And they live in disproportionately high numbers on busy roads.  As far back as 1998, a study I carried out in the London Borough of Greenwich (3) found a fifth of council tenants rated traffic noise as big a problem as crime, with those living on main roads the most concerned. 

Annoyance from wind farm noise is largely caused by the turbines being built too close to people’s homes.  Many countries are now stipulating a distance of, typically, one or two miles away.  But much depends on the terrain as the low-frequency noise produced by the turbines can carry a long distance and can penetrate walls in a way that higher frequencies generally don’t do.

Neighbour noise is a particular problem in low-income areas.  A MORI survey (4) revealed that almost 20% of people with a household income of less than £17,500 (in 2003) regularly heard noise from neighbours, including 93% of social housing tenants.  In contrast only 12% of people with an income of more than £30,000 could hear their neighbours.  Neighbour noise can be dealt with through improved sound insulation and coming down hard on the noise makers.

So, although aircraft are not unique in causing noise problems that link to mental health, it might be uniquely difficult to come up with viable solutions.  But before I explore solutions, it is worth looking at the research in more detail.

The most comprehensive piece of research is the NORA Study (5), carried out by the admirable Dirk Schreckenberg and his team in Germany.  It found statistically clear connections for depression. The noise from airplanes, cars and trains increases the risk of suffering a depressive episode. The disease, which usually happens in episodes is one of the most frequent mental illnesses in Germany. Every fifth person experiences at least one depressive episode in his or her life. The causes of depression are frequent, but usually several factors come together. One possible factor is stress, which in turn may be caused by chronic traffic noise.

NORA found that an increase in noise levels increases the depression risk.

  • by 8.9 percent in case of aviation noise.
  • by 4.1 percent in road noise.
  • by 3.9 percent in railway noise.

But then something unexpected happens.  When the noise reaches a higher level, the risk of depression falls (see chart above):  The rather unexpected results of the study included the results for depression at aviation and railway noise: The curve is an inverted U. This means: The risk for depressive disease increases with rising noise level first. In areas with very high aviation or railway noise exposure, however, the static risk drops again. The cause of this unusual distribution as compared to the other results cannot be determined by the NORAH study.  

NORAH also found that changes in noise levels can be particularly unsettling: Changes in mental well-being follows changes in noise annoyance • The (indirect) relationship between sound levels and mental health is generally weak, but… gets stronger after the opening of the new runway in the group suffering from an increase in aircraft noise exposure after runway opening. • It seems that noise becomes relevant for mental health particularly when the noise situation worsens.

A second German study, from Beutal (2), found that aircraft noise can lead to depression and future mental stress.  The five year longitudinal research, published this year, also found that mental distress may increase the vulnerability to noise (via heightened sensitivity to noise) in the first place.  

We know when the general population is most likely to become disturbed by noise.  I identified the key factors in my book (6): All of us, though, 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 can’t stop it getting worse.  We can be particularly disturbed when our neighbourhood suddenly becomes noisy – such as the introduction of a new flight path overhead. It is likely that these factors will be magnified for many people with mental health issues.

There is another important factor:  the way anxiety levels can rise with the fears and rumours that the noise might become worse.  As Chris Keady, who has bravely written about his mental health problems and to whom I am so grateful for first alerting me to the issue, wrote in a blog on the HACAN website: Talk of airport expansion and the possible prospect of more noise seriously raised my anxiety levels, and I knew from past experience that anxiety and worrying over intractable problems only sent me round in an endless loop, causing me to worry more.

So, if we know – and we are beginning to know – how aircraft noise can trigger mental health issues, what sort of solutions might work?

The NORAH Study identified one of them: periods of respite from the noise. It found that concentrated flight paths led to depression in some overflown people, and that respite was valued by those heavily overflown.

But I think we need to go beyond that, to what Chris Keady has called ‘Respite Plus’.  This focuses much more on individual solutions for people with mental health issues. And this is where it gets a bit tricky.  Everybody in the population will want the special treatment!  There would need to be criteria that had to be met, such as proof from a doctor of mental health issues and an agreed minimum noise cut-off point.  Then a plan would need to be drawn up in consultation with the resident.  This would probably involve comprehensive insulation of the property with, in exceptional circumstances, agreement to buy the property.  In the case of a tenant, it could mean assistance with moving away from the flight path.

When we have spoken with Heathrow about the whole issue of aircraft noise and mental health, there has been a commendable willingness to engage and to seek out solutions.

Whether or not a third runway is built – and, to ease the uncertainty for many with mental health issues, the sooner we get clarity from the Government on this, the better – the flight paths at Heathrow will see their biggest changes for decades.  This is driven by the move from a ground-based system to a satellite one to guide planes in and out of the airport.  Respite will be an integral part of the changes at Heathrow in a way that it is unlikely to be at many other airports.  The package would be enhanced if Respite Plus was also included.

Heathrow has the chance to become a world leader in dealing with aircraft noise and mental health.


1. Traffic Reduction in Europe, den Boer and Schroten, published by CE Delft.   

2. Gutenberg Health Study, Beutel et al

3. Poor Show, Stewart, published by ALARM UK/GASP 

4. Mori Survey, commissioned by DEFRA

5. https://www.norah-studie.de/en/

6. Why Noise Matters, Stewart et al, published by Earthscan

Make any airport expansion conditional on quality community engagement


by John Stewart

We don’t know yet what will happen with the third runway at Heathrow.  But whether or not it is dropped, it is important that one aspect of the process remains: the depth of community engagement Heathrow has undertaken as part of its efforts to secure a third runway. It has been way beyond anything I have seen in 20 years as chair of HACAN. Of course it was not perfect, with many communities frustrated that it has not resulted in some of the short-term improvements they are looking for, but it has exceeded the depth of engagement at other UK airports and at most European airports.

If the third runway disappears, we don’t want to lose it this sort of engagement.

Some of it was undertaken voluntarily; some was mandated by the National Policy Statement (Heathrow would not get a third runway unless it had shown it had engaged with its local community).

The proposal in this short blog is that future expansion at any airport across the country should be conditional on quality community engagement.  It should become a key criterion in determining whether the expansion is given the go-ahead.

If a third runway is dropped, the Government will be encouraging growth at other airports.  Yet many of them are very poor at engaging with their communities.  It was clear at a recent Aviation Communities Forum conference, which brought together campaigners from across the country, that most airports just do not have adequate engagement procedures in place.

ICCAN, the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise, is planning to publish a best practice guide later this year.  That will be very welcome.  But isn’t there a case for the Department for Transport in its forthcoming Aviation White Paper to go one step further and make expansion or growth conditional on first-rate community engagement?  

Heathrow consultations… I’ve lived through them all!


by Chris Longhurst

In this guest blog Isleworth resident and local journalist CHRIS LONGHURST gives his views on yet another upcoming consultation on airport expansion and reflects on just how many similar exercises have been carried out in his professional lifetime which saw him working as Heathrow reporter – and later editor – for both the Uxbridge Gazette and the Hounslow Chronicle newspapers:

“Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once claimed ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ –only he said it in French of course – and certainly for us seasoned airport watchers the knowledge that this April will see yet another Heathrow expansion consultation foisted on the world means we could most definitely be said to be suffering an advanced case of ‘already seen’; to use a translation of another French phrase*.

The reasons why we are being asked, for what feels like the millionth time, to give our opinions on adding extra capacity to the country’s busiest airport are well documented so there is no need to go over them again here. In truth, the details of the ‘why’ matter far less to most beleaguered locals than the question of ‘when’ as in ‘when will we finally break free of this interminable time loop?’

I first joined the Uxbridge Gazette in 2001 and can still remember the first Heathrow-related story I ever wrote it; it concerned the ongoing row between the Government and campaigners over – what the fifth terminal was simply known as at the time – T5. It would be a whole year before construction would eventually begin; having been in planning Hell since as far back as 1982!

Undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of my fledging career was covering the demonstration by environmental activists who had managed to infiltrate the site; climbing the massive cranes to unfurl protest banners, which landed them all with court summonses when they were eventually talked down after more than a week. I was there the day all eight appeared at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court and was one of the first to report the previously unknown fact that amongst their number was none other than one Daniel Hooper; better known to the world as Swampy!

From that point on, barely a month went by without a Heathrow story demanding to be included in the pages of the Gazette. Whether it was reporting the utterly predictable news that the promise to end expansion at T5 and not seek a third runway following its completion had been broken, revealing details of leaked plans for even more terminals in future, or patiently trying to explain the difference between government white and green papers, I and my colleagues doggedly kept the good citizens of Hillingdon – and beyond – informed of as many new developments as often as we could.

Throughout that time, an ever-present source of information existed in the form of HACAN and its committed team of supporters and experts. Their ethos regarding Heathrow has always been ‘Better not Bigger’ and over the years the activities of HACAN members and those of its fellow anti-expansion campaigners has sought to drive home that message time and time again.

We were there with them when they marched around the villages of Longford, Sipson, Harmondsworth and Harlington; we were there when they held a series of Flash Mob-style demonstrations in red T-shirts – including on the disastrous opening day of Terminal 5 when all the bags went missing – and we were there when they formed a giant ‘NO’ using their own bodies to send a message which could be read from the air (I’m standing in the bottom right-hand part of the ‘O’ in that one!)

That last one is particularly interesting, in that back then we were unafraid to openly admit to being anti-expansion ourselves. Simply because we knew it was how the majority of our readers felt too. Even when we were reporting how much the government and airport authority were offering in compensation to affected communities, we knew how much the history and sense of community meant to local people, and how strongly they felt about being asked to even consider moving away and leaving their beloved homes to be bulldozed.

Ten years ago I strengthened my anti-expansion credentials by moving to a flat directly under the flight path in Isleworth, where for the first time I was able to personally experience the noise, air, and traffic problems caused by having the airport in such close proximity which previously I had only been writing about. So while I have long since moved on from my professional interest in the expansion debate, I now get to continue attending exhibition events and filling in those seemingly endless consultation documents as an interested local resident.

How many have I filled in during that time? Does it matter? The fact is that no matter how many times we do it, they just keep asking! It’s incredibly frustrating, but if my journalism career has taught me anything, it’s that major infrastructure projects not only don’t get sorted out overnight, even when you think the argument has been won, or lost – and you’ve heard the last on the issue for ever – even then it turns out they are not sorted!

So when April rolls around and we all find ourselves once again receiving a small rainforest’s worth of information leaflets and consultation flyers through the post all inviting us to air our opinions on Heathrow’s plans for the third runway, feel free to sigh and say to yourself ‘here we go again’ but, equally, don’t fall into the trap of deciding not to bother taking part this time. Spirit sapping and horrendously repetitive though these processes might be, I’m afraid they are a necessary evil in the battle to ensure our voices are not drowned out over this incredibly important issue.

And, let’s be honest – remote though the possibility may be – aren’t we all just a little curious to see if our current (at the time of writing) Prime Minister will lie down in front of those bulldozers after all?!

*Deja Vu

We react differently to aircraft noise but it’s change that can trigger disturbance


by John Stewart

So what are you:

  • A ‘what noise’ character;
  • The Queen in Windsor;
  • A noise desperado?

Read on….

Nothing illustrates people’s different attitudes towards aircraft noise better than what happened at a meeting I attended recently.  The meeting had been called to explore more effective ways of using the web to explain aircraft noise to people living under flight paths.  We were a mix of aviation and community representatives. 

Towards the end a young woman spoke up.  She had been born and brought up in Hounslow, the London borough worst affected by noise from Heathrow Airport.  She said: “What would really interest me and so many of my young friends is for the website to show the destinations of the planes we see passing over us.  We would then be aware of the many exciting places we could visit.”  Nothing about noise.  Most of the time, she explained, she didn’t even hear the planes.

Noise. Simply. Was. Not. An. Issue………….in Hounslow 

But it is driving Sally crazy 20 miles from Heathrow.  Just hours before the meeting, I had been speaking on the phone to a HACAN member who lives almost 20 miles from Heathrow.  She told me she was clutching her mobile, sitting in her kitchen with two fans on, plus the radio, to drown out the noise of the planes.

To make it all a bit more complicated, she insists no planes passed over her house until a few years ago.  But the planes were there.  She just wasn’t conscious of them.  It reminds me of a young friend who moved into a flat in Vauxhall a few years ago.  He proudly showed me round.  “You see,” he said, “how quiet it is even though we are just a few minutes from the busy Vauxhall Gyratory.”  All I could hear was the constant roar of planes overhead.  He was oblivious to them.

I’m not sure how many studies there are on this but the anecdotal evidence suggests that people who have been born and brought up with the planes see them as part of life, a noise they get used to, to the extent they block it out altogether.  Indeed the aircraft are regarded, as the young woman said at the meeting, as an exciting opportunity to visit faraway places.

The Queen falls into a different category. She didn’t grow up under a flight path but retreats to Windsor, her favourite castle, whenever she can.  We know she hears the planes – and can identify the different types – but is clearly not so upset by them that she makes every effort to avoid Windsor.

I suspect many of her neighbours are in a similar position.  It is far too easy to tell people to move away from the noise – see my blog https://hacan.org.uk/blog/?p=75but it is equally true that many people are in a position to move away but don’t do so because, like the Queen, they can on balance live with the noise.

And the there’s ‘the desperadoes’.  The people whose lives are dominated by the noise; sometimes almost destroyed by it.  Most would move if they could.  If they were on the throne they would be heading for the peace and quiet of Balmoral in the Aberdeenshire countryside whenever possible.

The interesting question is: what has made them desperadoes?  They may be amongst the 10% of the population whom Rainer Guski, the respected German noise expert, estimates are particularly noise sensitive.

But most likely they turned into desperadoes when something changed in their lives. Change seems to be the key factor.  It could be they moved under a flight path for the first time.  Or they were spending more time at home. Or the number of planes overhead increased, perhaps not significantly but by enough to trigger deep annoyance.  They were disturbed by those planes for the first time.  Or, in some cases, actually heard the planes that were always there for the first time.

The latter is so difficult to accept.  It goes against our lived experience.  We cannot believe that the monsters which are now driving us crazy were always there but we were unaware of them.  That was probably my situation in 1996 when a (real) change to the flight paths had taken place.  It brought a huge increase in flight numbers over my flat.  It took me some time to accept that there might have been some planes there previously. 

Commendably, Heathrow has now produced online information showing flight paths and aircraft numbers and heights going back six years.  It is intended to inform and reassure.  To some, it simply annoys and infuriates.  They believe the figures are made up simply because they don’t doesn’t tally with their lived experience.

It is all made more complicated by the fact that the ‘trigger’ point seems to be different for each of us. 

More people will start noticing planes in the future – more will reach their ‘trigger’ point – as, with or without a third runway, there will be the biggest change to flight paths for half a century.

Heathrow has tried to lessen the impact through it commitment to introducing respite, by rotating flight paths so that no area will get all-day flying.  That is a hugely important step and will benefit many areas which currently get no break from the noise.  

But many people will notice the concentrated flight paths.  Some will say they never had planes before.  Some will be correct.  But others will be noticing them for the first time.  To lessen this impact is the reason why HACAN has for more than a decade been such a strong advocate of respite.

John Stewart chairs HACAN and is the author of the book Why Noise Matters

Will Boris bulldoze the Heathrow third runway?

by John Stewart

Boris once rang me up.  It was a bit incongruous really.  There was I standing on the deserted platform of  Isleworth rail station in West London, with the Mayor of London on my mobile!  He was congratulating me on my work in campaigning against a third runway and urging me to stand firm.

I am certain Boris doesn’t like the third runway.  He’s probably not too keen on a second runway at Gatwick either.  And he opposed the last expansion plans at London City Airport.  His dream remains Boris Island, the off-shore Estuary Airport, or something similar: a big new airport – away from a populated area – that can compete on the world stage.

There will be intense pressure from all sides on Boris, now that he is Prime Minister, over the third runway.  Which way will he jump?

I don’t think we will know the answer to that for some time.  Brexit is his priority.  His current cabinet is there to deliver Brexit.  It includes strong supporters of a third runway like transport secretary Grant Schapps as well as committed opponents like environment secretary Theresa Villiers.

Boris has been very careful to keep his options open.  Last week in Parliament he gave an interesting answer to the Green MP Caroline Lucas when she asked about 3rd runway:  “The bulldozers are some way off but I’m following with lively interest the court cases because I share her concerns about air quality and about pollution.”  No commitment to stop it or build it.

I suspect, though, never before have so many key opponents of a third runway had the ear of a Prime Minister:

Sir Edward Lister, his chief of staff, for 19 years the leader of Wandsworth Council, a consistent critic of a third runway

Theresa Villiers, his Secretary of State for the Environment, the person who, when shadow Transport Secretary in the late 1990s, played a key role in persuading David Cameron to come out against the third runway

Zac Goldsmith, appointed to Boris’s Government to work on environment and animal welfare issues across two Government departments, DEFRA and Dfid, famously resigned his seat and fought a by-election on the issue of a third runway

Daniel Moylan, Boris’s aviation adviser when he was London Mayor and who is still close to Boris and, as an ardent Bexiteer, is expected to given a role in the Brexit negotiations

Ray Puddifoot, the long-time leader of Hillingdon Council, the borough which includes Boris’s own Uxbridge constituency, is an implacable opponent of a third runway.  Hillingdon has put a huge amount of money into fighting it: in supporting residents and the wider opposition movements and in helping to fund legal challenges.  Indeed, it is thought that Puddifoot’s strategy has been to delay the new runway long enough in the hope Boris would one day become Prime Minister.

If Boris was minded to drop a third runway when would be do it?  My view is that he is likely to let the current consultation and probably next year’s Public Inquiry run their course.  In early 2021 the Government will need to make the final decision on the third runway.  This would be Boris’s opportunity to drop it if he was so minded.  If he did so before the proposal for the new runway had gone through the formal planning procedures, the Government would almost certainly need to find billions of pounds to compensate Heathrow for the work it has done.

Zac Goldsmith would not stay in a Government which gave a new runway the go-ahead and Ray Puddifoot and others would feel badly let down.

Could Boris sell a no third runway strategy to his cabinet and party? Perhaps only if he offered them the realistic prospect of a world-class airport elsewhere.  Business would want the same.  Or else this would be seen as the biggest ‘F… Business’ of all time. 

Heathrow would be devastated.  Although I have spent many years opposing a third runway, I recognise Heathrow has put a lot of time and money into trying to mitigate and manage its impacts in a way few airports in the world have ever done.

But perhaps Heathrow and its business backers will persuade Boris to overcome his own instincts and the beliefs of some of his closest colleagues and permit the expansion.  Could Boris be tempted by the Heathrow Hub proposal to double the length of the existing northern runway rather than build a new one?

What we do know is that the third runway is currently in that strangest of places:  in planning terms it is closer than ever before; but a Prime Minister is in power who threatens it more than any of his predecessors.     

John Stewart chairs HACAN which gives a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths

Getting hot under the collar about aircraft noise

by John Stewart

It is during these hot sunny days and warm nights that people’s vastly different reactions to aircraft noise come to the fore. 

I remember shortly after I started campaigning with HACAN arriving at a member’s house just as her husband was preparing to ‘enjoy’ the summer sunshine in his garden….seemingly oblivious to the constant noise of planes roaring overhead.  I don’t think he ever did join HACAN!

At the opposite end of the spectrum people have put up recent posts on social media saying how, in this hot weather, they lie in bed in the late evening with the sweat pouring off rather than open their windows.  There’s even one person who spends more or less all her time barricaded into one room of her house, surrounded with fans, because she finds the noise so disturbing when she opens the window.

In my book Why Noise Matters I said we are beginning to see two worlds colliding:

“those people who embrace loud and constant noise, who see no real problem with it; and those who are increasingly disturbed and, in some cases, utterly distressed by the noise around them.  It means people will have markedly different attitudes to their neighbours’ stereo-system, to living under a noise flight path…….”

This matters because if decision-makers do not understand the impact noise can have on some people they may see less need to bring in policies to deal with it.

Rainer Guski, the German psychologist and acoustician, estimates that about 10% of people will become more annoyed by noise than the general population.  At Heathrow, that is likely to mean that over 50,000 will be disturbed by the noise from the planes using the airport.

They are not necessarily those living closest to the airport. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people born and bred under a noisy flight path often block it out.  A couple of years ago I gave a speech to an audience in Hounslow West, an area of West London criss-crossed by noisy flight paths.  Afterwards I asked the young man sitting next to me, who was at the event with his parents, what he thought about what I had said.  Somewhat shyly, he confessed, “To be quite honest, John, it did nothing for me.  I have lived under the flight path and gone to school under it all my life and I simply don’t hear the planes.”

He’s not alone. Many people can block out the noise.  For others it is a concern but not the biggest issue in their lives.  People seem most disturbed if they feel, rightly or wrongly, the planes have come newly to them.  Sometimes that is actually the case; at other times an increase in flight numbers has triggered an awareness of the planes that were always overhead.

There is evidence that as a society we have become more tolerant of noise (at a time we have become less tolerant of air pollution and climate emissions). Researchers Blesser and Salter argued in The examined rewards of excessive noise that “when a culture accepts loudness as being a legitimate right in recreational sound venues, that acceptance tends to legitimise all forms of noise pollution…….loudness becomes the cultural norm.”

I wrote in my book, “It this argument is correct, it has profound implications for tackling noise.  Will decision-makers feel under the same pressure to deal with noise if loudness has become the cultural norm for at least a percentage of the population?  Indeed, how many decision-makers themselves will fall into that category?  And where will that leave the millions who will still be disturbed by noise, far less the 10% of people who are particularly noise-sensitive.”

Questions for all of us and particularly decision-makers to ponder as we enjoy or hide away from these hot summer days.  

Meaningful respite

by John Stewart

The blog explains and assesses what sort of respite is on offer in Heathrow’s current consultation for people who experience or will experience arrivals.

Note: It doesn’t cover departures or the Independent Parallel Approaches (the new flight paths that will be needed for about 5 years if Heathrow gets permission to bring in 25,000 more planes in advance of any third runway opening).  I hope, within the next week, to do blogs covering these issues).

In 2014 I wrote about flight paths:

“The current situation across huge swathes of London and the Home Counties is untenable and change can only be a good thing”.

“40 planes an hour overfly the Oval Cricket Ground or Clapham Common.

A report commissioned by HACAN in 2007 from the consultants Bureau Veritas found that in Ruskin Park in Camberwell or Kennington Park (see picture) almost 20 miles from the airport, ‘aircraft noise dominates the local environment’. 

I argued the answer was respite:

“Whenever surveys are done, they show that people prefer the flight paths to be shared, so that everybody gets a break – some respite – from the noise.”

Since the 1970s people under the flight path in West London have enjoyed a half day’s break from the noise as planes switch runways at 3pm.

For well over a decade HACAN has argued that some sort of respite should be extended to people further afield, both those living under arrivals and departures flight paths.

That is what Heathrow’s proposals in its current consultation are offering.

Will they meet people’s expectations?

First, a look at what is on offer:

HACAN would prefer respite without a third runway and continues to make the arguments against a new runway.  But the purpose of this blog is to assess what is on offer.

What is on offer for West London?

For people under the northern runway (that is the new flight path to the new runway) and those under the existing southern runway, this is the offer:

¼ of the day with no planes

½ the day with ‘moderate’ overflying (i.e. a plane every few minutes rather every 90 seconds)

¼ of the day with a plane every 90 seconds

For people under the middle runway (the current northern runway)

½ day with no planes

½ day with a plane every 90 seconds

For simplicity, I’ve assumed a period of respite every day though Heathrow is also seeking views on other options such whether people would prefer a whole day of planes followed by one long periods of respite.

What is on offer for areas west of the airport?

At present when planes land from the west over Windsor when an east wind is blowing there is no runway alternation.  That will change and the same pattern will be followed as the one agreed for westerly operations.

What is on offer for areas further out, both east and west of the airport?

Currently, these areas get all-day flying, with no respite.  Some places at times are getting over 40 planes an hour, with the planes hovering around 4,000ft.

The proposal is to provide these areas with predicable periods of respite for the first time.

These areas have been divided into blocks.  These blocks indicate where there may be one or more flight path. (Heathrow has not decided yet where, within these blocks, the flight paths will be).

The pattern of respite for people under a flight in any of these blocks will follow the same pattern proposed for runway alternation.

For people under a flight path heading towards either the northern runway (that is the new flight path to the new runway) or the southern runway, this is the offer:

¼ of the day with no planes

½ the day with ‘moderate’ overflying (i.e. a plane every few minutes rather every 90 seconds)

¼ of the day with a plane every 90 seconds

For people under a flight path heading towards the middle runway (the current northern runway)

½ day with no planes

½ day with a plane every 90 seconds

 But there could be some more respite on offer for people within these blocks.  If there is, for example, more than one flight path in a block heading towards the northern runway, that would enable planes to the other flight paths(s) at different times of the day, thus providing each area with more respite.

What sort of relief will all this bring?

Many of the communities under the final approach to the new runway will get aircraft for the first time.  Even with periods of respite, there will get a lot more noise than they have had. 

For communities under the middle runway (the current northern runway) in West London the situation will be much the same as it is today.  When planes approach from the east residents in Windsor will get a half day’s break from the noise for the first time.

For communities under the southern runway in West London the respite period will be cut from a half to a third of the day.  When planes approach from the east, communities will experience landings for the first time.

Areas like Peckham could get respite for the first time

Communities further from the airport will get periods of respite for the first time.  This will benefit hundreds of thousands of people.  The scale of the benefit will depend on how far apart the flight paths can be.

If, in order to provide these communities with some respite, other communities will experience a lot of planes for the first time, those communities will clearly lose out.  My own view is that new communities should be avoided if at all possible.

A note to the man ‘who got Brexit done’: delay a 3rd runway decision and many communities will hurt

by John Stewart

A third runway at Heathrow could still be a decade away.  That’s even if it gets the final green light from the Secretary of State for Transport in 2021 following the public inquiry which is expected to start later this year.  It had been scheduled to open in 2026 but now it could be 2029.  That’s because the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced shortly before Chistmas that it had refused Heathrow permission to spend the money it wanted on a third runway before final permission has been granted.

As I a long-time opponent of a third runway I should be delighted.  But, although I know delay is a tried and tested – and sometimes successful – tactic used to a stop major development, I’m uneasy about the prospect of a delay.  Too much is hold until the runway is either built or abandoned.  And not just for the obvious players:  Heathrow as well as many businesses and some other airports who would plan differently if a third runway was dropped; but also for many communities, including many of the people who HACAN represents.

It is not unlike Brexit.  Except for committed remainers, there seems to be general relief that a clear decision on Brexit will now be taken.  The uncertainty was hurting.

A lot of residents are hurting waiting for some certainty around a third runway.  A couple of weekends ago I visited some of our members who live not far from Brixton in South London.  They’ve had all-day flying for years.  During my visit the noise was constant. 

They suspect nothing will change in the short-term because the aviation industry is focused on plans for a third runway, designing its flight paths and a new night flight regime on the basis it will happen.  For them, those changes may be potentially beneficial:  a longer night period without planes and an end to all-day flying as multiple routes are introduced in order to provide them with respite they’ve been wanting for years.  If a runway is to be given permission, they would prefer it – and the changes it would usher in – to open in 2026 rather than 2029.

Big decisions hang on the timing.  One woman told me she could not face another decade of unremmiting noise and would need to move away whereas five or six years might just be about bearable.

They need to know what will happen to them if the third runway is dropped.  They know that new flight paths, driven by new satellite-based technology, will come in whether or not as third runway will be built.  But all the current focus is on how to coordinate the flight paths of a 3-runway Heathrow with the new flight paths being introduced at the other airports in London and the South East.  A huge undertaking which would probably need to start from scratch if Heathrow remained a 2-runway airport. 

On Friday I received two emails, one from a woman in Lewisham, the other from a couple in Chiswick wanting to move but not knowing where to go because of the continuing uncertainty about where new flight paths will be and when they will be introduced.  They feel in limbo.

This uncertainty is perhaps most stark for those whose homes are threatened by the runway.  Some don’t want to move; others are prepared to take the offer on the table; but most want some certainty so they can plan their future.

If a third runway means you will be under a flight path for the first time, or if a third runway will mean more planes over your home, or if you are a climate campainger, delay is important. 

But we need to recognise many communities want an early decision – one way or another.  Their lives are on hold – and often dominated by unremitting noise which nobody feels they can do anything about until a decision is made. 

It is not always easy for campaigners to understand that it is not just many in business and the aviation industry who want a clear decision on a third runway soon.  It is also many local communities.

The tax which ticks all the boxes

by John Stewart

2019 could be the year when the Frequent Flyers Levy goes mainstream since one of the main political parties, the Labour Party, looks set to back the concept.

In this blog I make the case that the Frequent Flyers Levy is the closest we’ve got to a tax which ticks all the boxes.

It could retain the considerable benefits of aviation while curbing its downsides.

Most holidaymakers would benefit.  There would be no tax on the first (return) flight in a year.  And that’s all most of us take.

Business wouldn’t lose out.  Business flights from the UK only make up 12% of all flights.  They could be exempt from the levy.

The Frequent Flyers Levy would retain the benefits of flying while curbing its downsides.

The benefits of aviation are considerable:

Aviation is critical to the international connectivity which facilitates trade that historically has increased prosperity and opened up closed societies.

Cheap flights have brought people real benefits.  They have enabled us to go on holiday to places not previously possible, visit family and friends more often and widen the choice of where we work. 

One day he will want to travel the world.  It’s only right he can do so.  Cheap flights must remain.  Never again should flying become the preserve of the rich.

But the downsides of aviation cannot be ignored:

It is a growing contributor to climate change and, despite the introduction of less noisy planes, a big noise problem for many communities.

A Frequency Flyers Levy can retain the benefits of aviation while curbing its downsides.

Here how:

  • Everyone gets one tax free return flight each year.
  • Tax kicks in at a low rate from the second flight, then goes up a notch for each extra flight in that year.
  • The majority of us would benefit as most people only take one or two flights each year (50% of us don’t fly at all in any one year), while a just tiny handful are taking dozens of flights.
  • Business flights could be exempt as they make up only 12% of flights.

The beauty of the tax is that it is on how many flights we take each year, not on how far we travel.  So people talking the occasional long-distance flight to visit family on another continent would not lose out…..and would be likely to gain as Air Passenger Duty currently increases with the distance travelled.

But somebody must lose out?  The Frequent Flyers do.

So who are the frequent flyers?

The 15% of people who take over 70% of all our flights.  Not demons;  simply people doing what their incomes – and the current tax levels – allow.  You can read more about frequent flyers here: http://afreeride.org/

But the growth in aviation – certainly in rich countries – is being driven by increased leisure trips by frequent flyers rather than by business trips.

Curbing climate change and noise

Depending on the level at which it was set a Frequent Flyers Levy could curb climate change emissions and aircraft noise by reducing the number of flights frequent flyers choose to make and thus managing the growth in flight numbers.

Replacing Air Passenger Duty (APD)

APD currently raises over £3bn a year.  It was brought as aviation fuel is not taxed and there is no VAT on airline tickets.  It is a sort of substitute tax.  But it is a blunt instrument and a regressive tax.

My own preference would be that the revenues raised by a Frequent Flyers Levy are hypothecated for research and development into cleaner and quieter planes.  A tax on an industry which benefits the industry.  I told you it ticked all the boxes!