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.

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!


by John Stewart

for a fuller version of this blog (including useful tables) go to http://hacan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Blog-aircraft-number-matter.pdf

One of the most significant, and most welcome, sentences in the Government’s Aviation Green Paper (1) is this:

 the government recognises that statistics showing past and future improvements in noise do not necessarily match the experience of some people living under flightpaths, for whom the benefits of quieter aircraft can be cancelled out by greater frequency of movements or the effects of concentrated traffic associated with more accurate navigation technology”

 It is official recognition that, for many people, it is the number of planes overhead that can be the all-important factor in how disturbed they are by the noise.

The Government expects a big increase in aircraft numbers by 2050 with increases at individual airports of up to 83% (with an average just under 40%).

A CAA study found that, despite the projected increase in flight numbers, the numbers people impacted by noise would fall.  The study, the most comprehensive ever undertaken to assess future noise levels, found that the fall would be greater if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of new homes will have been built in the impacted areas by 2050.

The CAA study also found that the number of people highly annoyed by noise would fall at most airports.  The main reason why the CAA expects numbers to fall is the progressive introduction of less noisy aircraft.

 It is not the purpose of this blog to criticise the CAA’s study. It would be arrogant and ignorant to do so.  It is an impressive piece of work.   All this blog wants to do is make the case that the total number of aircraft passing over a community may be the all-important factor.

 The prime – and very often only concern – for most people is how many planes go over their own community.  They are much less interested in the total number of aircraft using the airport or even how many runways it has.  And many of them have little interest in other communities.

The challenge, therefore, for the industry and government is to find a way to cap number of flights over any one community.

This is likely to require the introduction of multiple flight paths.  This can be made possible by new technology.  Across the world airports are moving from ground-based technology to a satellite system to guide planes in and out of airports.  It is known as Performance Based Navigation (PBN).  PBN will mean the introduction of narrow, precision flight paths.  If a number of them can be introduced at any airport, they can then be rotated, to give each community some respite from the noise and thereby cap the number of aircraft going over any one area.  It would allow for some growth at the airport while protecting local communities.

The Green Paper not only proposes multiple flight paths as an option for airports to consider but also proposes a noise cap or noise reduction plans for airports.

 These all could be useful tools for capping flight numbers over communities.

 A noise cap can be more than a movement cap.  The Green Paper says: “A noise cap (also known as a noise envelope) is any measure which restricts noise. In its crudest form this could be a simple movement cap, but the government proposes advocating caps which are based on setting maximum noise exposure levels (such as contour area or noise quota).”  It could also include heights of aircraft, compensation packages and night flights.

 But, while there is a clear upside to capping, there are two downside which would need to be addressed.   The first is the introduction of multiple flight paths might necessitate the creation of flight paths over new areas.   In my view, the latter should be avoided wherever possible – it is a brutal act to create a new flight path and would result in a lot of people becoming very angry and annoyed.  It should only be done if it is the only way to benefit communities currently under a flight path.

The second is that at single runway airports – the vast majority in most countries – people under the final approach path cannot by definition benefit from multiple flight paths.  They should be first in line for a generous compensation and mitigation package.  But, if the time comes when any of these communities, even with good mitigation, cannot tolerate any more noise, perhaps that it is the signal that their particular airport has reached the point where further growth is no longer an option, certainly until much quieter aircraft can be introduced.

Bobby Seagull, who shot to fame in University Challenge a couple of series ago, said that his book The Life-Changing Power of Numbers is part biography, part a love letter to numbers.  I’m not sure I love numbers like that but I suspect aircraft numbers will be critical to the future noise climate experienced by communities.


(1) Green Paper:


(2) CAA Study:


SE London: a challenge for both Heathrow and London City

by John Stewart

Here’s your starter for 10.  How many times during a typical year has the east wind blown above 5 knots between lunchtime Saturday and lunchtime Sunday? 

The question is of more than quiz trivia interest to people in South East London because it is the only time many of them get a break from aircraft noise.

 Here’s how it works:

West Wind: Planes landing at Heathrow; can be over 40 an hour

East Wind:  Usually no Heathrow planes, but London City aircraft land in their concentrated corridor over swathes of SE London

Light East Wind:  Heathrow planes still landing (because they only switch when the wind gets above about 5 knots) but City planes are also landing (because they switch immediately wind direction changes). Total can be over 50 planes an hour.

East wind above 5 knots Sat lunch – Sun lunch:  No planes!  Heathrow aircraft are landing over Windsor; and London City is shut.

Last year because of the beast from the east and its summer cousin we saw a lot of east wind but in a typical year it just blows about 30% of the time.  How often is it over 5 decibels?  I’m not sure.  And how often is it over 5 decibels between Saturday lunch time and Sunday lunchtime?  Even less. But that is the only time many in SE London get a break from the noise.

Heathrow and London City have started talking.  When Heathrow introduces its new flight paths after 2025, there is the opportunity to provide respite through the introduction of multiple rotating flights (particularly if London City will play ball and remove its current single concentrated flight path).  In the shorter term HACAN is speaking with both the airports and NATS to look at what could be done to ease the situation.

A bonus mark to those of you who added Christmas Day:  City Airport is closed and an east wind above about 5 knots means Heathrow planes land over Windsor.


Noise: driving ordinary people to do extraordinary things

by John Stewart

‘I have never seen anything that affects people like noise does’ Pamela Parker Shine, a noise inspector in Montgomery County, USA

 When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives and people will move mountains to get rid of it.

  • A teenager who left school at 15 with minimal qualifications to work in Carnaby Street in the swinging ‘60s became the driving force behind the Noise Act thirty years later in 1996..because of a noise problem she had experienced.
  • A pensioner who barely used a computer forced herself onto twitter and facebook to tell the world about the planes flying over her house.
  • A retired couple spent over 70,000 of their own money to try to persuade the authorities to sort out serious low-frequency noise from a pipeline.
  • A tenant on benefits fought his Housing Association through courts and tribunals for eight long years to improve the insulation in his property.

And, for the most part, we are talking about your average person who led a fairly typical life until the noise hit. Some will be amongst the 10% of people the German psychologist Rainer Guski identified as particularly noise sensitive. Many will not.

It can be difficult for people who haven’t been really disturbed by noise to understand the lengths those who are disturbed by it will go to get rid of it.

I wrote in my book Why Noise Matters, published in 2011:

When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives.  It always seems to be there, an ever-present shadow, darting, taunting, tantalising; forever just out of reach.  The desire to get rid of the offending noise by almost any means possible can become overwhelming.  People spend their waking – and sleeping – hours fantasising on how to stop it.  They dream of poisoning the barking dog; of shooting down the roaring jet; of smashing the neighbour’s stereo; or of derailing the latest lorry that thunders past.”

It is no wonder that ordinary people can become so dogged when trying to sort out the noise.  Here is the story of that Carnaby St teenager:

Little did Val think she would become the UK’s leading anti-noise campaigner when as a teenager she worked for the Small Faces rock band in Carnaby Street at the height of their fame in the swinging London of the 1960s.  She liked the pop music of the era.  Her regular haunt was the Marquee in Soho.  The noise problem that was to change Val’s life didn’t start until 20 years later.  By then she was living with her two children in a house in the Thamesmead council estate in South London.  She had been there for about 12 years.  She was a broadcaster on the local radio station, deeply involved with the community and on friendly terms with her neighbours.  She jumped at the chance to buy her house. 

 And then……a new neighbour moved in next door and the music started.  It was so loud that Val and her husband Phil could hear the lyrics through the wall.  They asked the neighbour to turn it down, which at first she did, but then it was back at the same volume.  ‘We couldn’t relax or watch television and I kept bursting into tears at work,’ says Val.  ‘It turned into a full-scale battle.  We threatened to take her to court but she just sent a note back saying “good luck to you”.  All the council did was to send us a leaflet about taking our own action.’  In the end Val sold up. ‘I had to give some of my right-to-buy discount back but we were so desperate we had no option.  We are permanently sensitised now and, if we hear that bass, those feelings of panic return.’ 

After her experience Val set up the Peace and Quiet Campaign to assist noise sufferers.  At its height in the 1990s it had thousands of members.  She received an MBE for her work.  She then founded and became the co-ordinator of the UK Noise Association.  But she says the noise experience will never leave her. ‘We now live in Kent.  We have had to take out a large mortgage to buy a detached house because, if we were attached to anybody, I would live in fear that a new neighbour might start playing their music excessively loud and our nightmare would return.’

Val is not typical in that, once her own noise problem was sorted out, she spent the rest of her working life battling noise on a national level.  Most people when their noise problem is dealt with go back to living the lives they once had.

But she is typical in the way that people disturbed by noise will strain ever sinew to get it sorted out.  It probably stating the obvious that people who are the most desperate, and perhaps the most motivated, are those who feel they cannot escape from the noise or that it is going to damage their lives by forcing them to move away from family and friends or it will cause them financial loss.

Many of the posts about noise on social media are cries for help from desperate people.  When I read a tweet that a woman is dreading the next few days because an east wind will be blowing and she will be getting planes all day long, this is a heartfelt cry for someone to do something about the noise.

Most noise sufferers are not good, certainly initially, at solutions.  They just want rid of the noise.  But they often don’t know how to go about it.  They have not been in this situation before.  They are not campaigners or politicians.

But the drive to get rid of the noise means many find themselves doing things they never imagined they would: going to rallies; attending public meetings; taking part in demonstrations; writing letters; speaking with lawyers; neglecting family; foregoing a social life. I once said to a noise sufferer “I’ll buy you a drink if you win your battle”.  He replied: “I’m glad you offered.  I’ve forgotten how to go to the bar!”  Continue reading

Turning the WHO noise report into action

John Stewart looks at policy measures which could deal with the trend WHO identifies: health can be affected by lower noise levels than previously thought  

 The new World Health Organisation (WHO) noise guidelines published in October argued that people’s health was impacted by aircraft noise at much lower levels than previously thought.

Three immediate questions come to mind:

  • How accurate are the WHO figures?
  • Are they supported by other studies?
  • If they are broadly correct, what measures can be put in place to cut the impact of aircraft noise?
  1. How accurate are the figures?

The safe limits the WHO proposes are:

Road                                    53Lden                                45Lnight

 Rail                                      54Lden                                44Lnight

Aircraft                                 45Lden                                40Lnight

 Wind Turbine                      45Lden                         no  recommendation*

  Leisure                                 70 LAeq

* WHO felt that there was insufficient evidence to make a recommendation but stressed that it was not saying there was no problem.

The limits were arrived at in this way:  when 10% of people said they were annoyed by a particular noise source (during the day) at a given level, that level became the bench-mark, the health threshold, the recommended guideline.  The night time guidelines, generally, are lower because the evidence showed that regular sleep disturbance can have a worse impact on health than annoyance.  Therefore the benchmark was set at a lower level.  The recommended threshold was the level at which 3% of people were ‘highly sleep-disturbed’.  WHO’s findings are based on a comprehensive assessment of the available research and the organisation has expressed a high level of confidence in its recommendations.

Nevertheless, some questions come to mind.  45Lden is a low figure.  In geographical terms, around Heathrow for example, it would cover areas well over 20 miles from the airport.  There are undoubtedly people living in those areas who are highly annoyed by aircraft noise.  They contact HACAN on a regular basis.  What I don’t know whether or not they make up 10% of the population.  The WHO acknowledges that this 10% may be too high amongst the population as a whole; it may be distorted by the clear finding that people are most likely to be highly annoyed when change has take place, such as a new runway or new flight paths.  There also does seem to be a correlation between the rise in annoyance and a rise in the volume of planes flying over any one community.  But, perhaps more fundamentally, if WHO had chosen a different level at which people became highly annoyed – say 8% or 12% of the population – it would have had different results.

  1. Are they supported by other studies?

This is a key question.  In a very real sense they are as WHO arrived at its figures only after reviewing a wide range of studies.  And studies which were published after the WHO had done its research confirm that people get annoyed at lower levels than previously acknowledged.  Both the huge NORAH Study carried out in Germany and a recent report by the Civil Aviation Authority confirmed the trend.  The CAA’s work, SoNA (Survey of Noise Attitudes, 2014) for example found that 7% of people become significantly annoyed at 51LAeq.  A slightly different metric and a less dramatic finding but spelling out a similar message to WHO.  And I think that is the key point.  The exact metric at which annoyance or sleep disturbance may lead to health problems may always be open to some debate, but the trend is very clear:  people can be impacted by aircraft noise at much lower levels than previously thought.

  1. What measures can be put in place to cut the impact of aircraft noise?

If these limits were to be achieved tomorrow there would be no planes in our skies, no cars on the roads and the rail network would come to a standstill.  And that is not what the WHO is not calling for.  But it is equally clear that doing nothing is not an option.  It wants to see measures put in place that will cut the impact of transport noise on people’s health.

So, what could be done?  Some measures will be easier to recommend than others.

 The more straightforward measures

CDA (continuous descent approach) is in place at all airports. This is where aircraft descent smoothly, cutting noise and enabling them to be higher for longer.  It is standard practice at an airport like Heathrow.  There seems no operational reason why it cannot be the standard at all airports.

Less noisy planes continue to come on-stream. This is happening but at a slow pace.  The step change we have seen over the last 30/40 years has come to an end.

Money from aviation taxes like Air Passenger Duty is used for research into quiet aircraft. The industry continues to put money into developing less noisy planes but this could be given a useful boost if the money raised by Government from aviation taxes could be earmarked for research and development into the quiet plane.

A less little straightforward

 A national target to cut noise from aviation is introduced. The Government is considering this as part of its new aviation strategy.  It would be important as it could act as the driver to cut noise in the same way as air pollution targets have helped drive policy. It should be possible to come up with a target but I’ve put in this category because it is not clear at this stage just how it would work.

 Approach and departure routes to be as steep as practicable.These are desirables but there are some constraints.  The angle for landing aircraft must be shallow enough to allow planes to land safely and easily on the runway.  Steeper angles are possible at airports such as London City which only operate smaller aircraft.  And it may be that a two-tier glideslope is possible, with aircraft descending at a steeper angle further from the airport.  Steeper departures would relieve the noise for those communities right under the flight path – the priority in my opinion – but would increase it for communities to the side.  Additionally in busy airspace, such as over London and the SE, aircraft might need to be held down to avoid planes from other airports.  That, though, should be resolved with the introduced of Precision Based Navigation (PBN) where, using satellite-based technology, aircraft can be guided much more accurately.

Respite becomes the norm for local communities.  The key factor for communities is the number of aircraft which go over their heads.  For a lot of people this is more important than the total number of aircraft using an airport or even the number of runways it has.  In order to reduce annoyance, it is necessary to cut the number of flights overflying individual communities.  This can be done by using the new precision satellite technology to create, and then rotate, multiple routes.  There are two limiting factors:  it may not always be possible for people very close to the runway to get respite (they should be first in line for mitigation); and the complexity of the airspace, particularly in London and the SE, may limit the number of respite paths available.

Overflying new areas is avoided if possible.  But sometimes it will be inevitable in order to ease the noise burden for existing communities.  The starkest finding from the WHO findings is that annoyance increases markedly when change takes place, at what they call ‘high change’ airports.  This suggests that new areas should be avoided if possible.  But this might not always be the fairest thing to do.  If the noise burden for communities currently overflown was to become excessive, the fairest thing to do would be to share it round even if that meant some areas getting it for the first time.

 More challenging measures

 Night flights are phased out.  This would be welcomed by local communities but would be resisted by the airlines.  As a starting point, the Government should commission research into whether the economic benefits of night flights still outweigh the cost to the country of their health disbenefits.  This should be done airport by airport.  Unless the economic benefits of night flights at an airport are significantly higher than the health disbenefits, night flights should go.  

 International action is taken on night flights.  Ultimately international action is needed on night flights.  It would be difficult to justify a ban at European airports if that resulted in more night flights in the less well-off countries.  Up-to-date research is needed into the true economic benefits of night flights, into whether other sectors of the economy (such as the hotel trade) would benefit if they were banned and into whether a worldwide night ban is operationally feasible.  To my knowledge, the last comprehensive report on night flights was released by the European Commission in 2005.  Assessing the Economic Cost of Night Flight Restrictions found “the argument for night flights seems likely to be basically commercially rather than operationally driven.”

 Demand for flying is managed.  There is a case for putting this top of my list as, in theory, heavy taxes could be imposed on tickets in next year’s budget which could cut demand at a stroke.  But, in the real world, that is not going to happen.  Taxes on aviation in this country are already amongst the highest in the world and any government will be worried about making UK uncompetitive by imposing higher taxes.  But clearly the option should not be ruled out.  Sir Howard Davies argued in his Airport Commission report that, if demand was such that carbon targets would not be met, fiscal measures should be used to dampen down demand.  I think the same argument stands in the case of noise.  For many communities noise levels are currently unacceptable.  People’s health is being damaged.  If fiscal measures are required to deal with this by dampening down demand, governments should not shy away from this option.

John Stewart

John Stewart chairs HACAN, the organisation which gives a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths.  He is also the lead author of Why Noise Matters, published by Earthscan in 2011.

Full WHO report:  http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/383921/noise-guidelines-eng.pdf?ua=1

Metrics Matter

Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have been reading a blog on metrics; far less writing one.  Indeed, I’m not sure I’d really have had much idea of what “metrics” were.

 But having chaired HACAN for nearly 20 years I now know metrics matters a lot.  The way noise is measured and the assumptions behind when it becomes annoying are critical factors in the determining Government policy on noise.

The importance of getting metrics right was recognized by the Transport Select Committee in its recent report on the National Policy Statement.  In effect, it suggested the Department for Transport recalculate the number of people which could be impacted by a three runway Heathrow using the most up-to-date metrics.  If this was done it believed ‘an extra 539,327 people would be captured in the annoyance footprint; taking the total number of people in the noise annoyance footprint to over 1.15 million’.  This is considerably higher than either the DfT or Heathrow have acknowledged.

Using the right metrics is the also one of the key messages of the report HACAN published this week (in association with Plane Hell Action) which found that aircraft noise can be a problem over 20 miles from Heathrow – areas where the traditional metrics simply ignored:  http://hacan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Corridors-of-Concentration-Report.pdf

It needs to be acknowledged the real progress there has been in recent years in devising more realistic metrics.  Credit goes to campaigners who gave banged on about outdated metrics for nearly 20 years, the Airports Commission who came to the issue with fresh eyes, Heathrow who came to understand the need for change and to the Department for Transport which moved things forward significantly in its new airspace policy announced in autumn 2016.

Things are not yet perfect – which I’ll come to later in the blog – but we are in a different world from the dark days of two decades ago.  Then the 57 decibel contour was king.  If you were inside the contour, it was accepted you had a noise problem.  Outside of it, you didn’t really count.

So what was so magical about the 57 decibel contour?  It was constructed like this.  Over a 16 hour day, the number of aircraft passing over an area and the noise of each plane were noted.  The noise was then averaged out.  This was then turned into an annual average.  If the annual average was over 57 decibel, the area was within the 57 decibel contour.

Why 57 decibels?  Because, at the time, this was the level at which the Government argued ‘the onset of community annoyance’ began.  Acousticians were careful to say that it was more subtle than that and that some people became annoyed at lower levels but, to all intents and purposes, the 57 decibel contour became the official cut-off point, used at public inquiries and in industry and government documents to illustrate the numbers impacted by individual airports.  Latterly, it made no sense.  Around Heathrow for example places like Putney and Fulham – both clearly heavily impacted by aircraft noise – were outside the contour.

Things began to look up when, over a decade ago, the EU required member states to use a different metric known as 55Lden.  It argued that the ‘onset of community annoyance’ started at a lower level.  The difference in numbers impacted at Heathrow was huge:  over 725,000 using 55Lden compared with around 245,000 using 57LAeq.

The Airports Commission under Sir Howard Davies, although criticized in other areas, moved the metrics debate forward significantly.  It suggested a range of metrics should be used included the ‘N’ metric.  Local communities often feel these are more meaningful to them than the average noise.  So, for example, N60 would indicate the number of flights over 60 decibels that went over an area in any given period.  Heathrow also began to move towards using a suite of metrics.

The culmination of this improved process was the Government’s Airspace Policy announced in autumn 2016.  It effectively ditched the 57LAeq contour and replaced it with the 54LAeq as point where ‘the onset of community annoyance’ starts.  But it went further.  On the basis of a report it had commissioned from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Department for Transport recognized that around 7% of people could be disturbed when the noise averages out at 51 decibels.  These are more meaningful metrics.  And not far from what the World Health Organisation recommends.

In geographical terms, it takes the annoyance boundary from about Barnes (57 contour) to Clapham (54 contour) to about the Southwark/Lewisham border (51 contour).  As the crow flies, Barnes in 9 miles from Heathrow, Clapham 14 miles and Nunhead (fairly close to the Southwark/Lewisham border), 19 miles.  Similar calculations can be done west of the airport.

Accurate metrics matter because only when there is a clear idea of the numbers impacted by noise from an airport can realistic policies be put in place to deal with that noise.  Metrics can determine levels of compensation, whether efforts should be made to provide communities with relief and respite from the noise and, indeed, to assess the impact of any new runway.

Campaigners will be pressing for real action based on these more meaningful metrics.  We will also continue to press for still further improvements.  For example, the existing metrics do not reflect the actual noise impact in areas like Ealing or Teddington which only get planes (on easterly departures) about 30% of the year but, when they do, the impact is significant.  A metric that measures only the days areas are overflown would be more meaningful and needs to be added to the suite of metrics used.  This would also capture the problems experienced in places like Reading and Caverham which are currently a little outside the 51 decibel contour when measured over a year.  A metric also needs to be used which reflects the cumulative impact on areas which experience noise from two airports, such as Heathrow and London City.

The dark days when one outdated metric was relied upon do seem to be over.  But the light is not yet shining as brightly as it could be.