From centre stage to the gutter: the ugly politics of mental illness and aviation noise

Guest Blog: Chris Keady

4th August 2020

Coming out

Five years ago I ‘came out’ publicly to try and help others understand what serious mental illness can do to people and those who care about them, and why aviation noise potentially posed the greatest unresolved risk to their sustained health and wellbeing. This needed to be addressed, and a range of genuinely innovative, accessible, solutions was suggested.

The narrative was grabbing attention and winning plaudits across the UK, Europe and the USA, and     I was fortunate to share platforms with MPs, and leading stakeholders and researchers for example, at the Greater London Assembly and the House of Commons. I also spoke on BBC radio, blogged, and campaigned extensively, and ran the first Mental Health and Aviation Noise week. This was all done to promote greater clarity around the genuine health issues that excessive, concentrated noise presented, and the need to address these when designing future flightpath solutions. The approach was informed, inclusive, and solution seeking. It sought to work ‘with the grain’, and to benefit all affected people or communities, wherever they might be.

The bowels of hell

I shared that I had ‘lived’ with mental illness most of my life. Episodes of depression had progressively become worse and my prognosis consequently wasn’t good, especially as on the last occasion I came very close to death. Clinically I had developed psychotic depression, along with delusions, and constant restlessness and pacing (psycho motor agitation). I was in the ‘bowels of hell’, and was truly mad, with the most severe form of depression diagnosable. Years later I learned of the terrible toll this took on my family, innocent bystanders, who were powerless to make it better. Their scars and tears are still fresh.

Barricading myself in rooms for ‘safety’ having been threatened and assaulted on secure wards,  absconding from nurses who I thought wanted to kill me, self-harming with blades and ligatures, it was thought I would never recover. I was a shuffling wreck of the person I once was, failing to respond to a series of treatments. But when the system had virtually given up on me and wanted to move me into a ‘home’ (essentially to permanently ‘warehouse’ me), very slowly, with the love and support of those who truly cared about me, I began to edge back to the real world over several years. Although tiny, faltering steps, they were also monumental milestones, as laces replaced velcro shoe fasteners, trouser belts replaced none, and I was left alone around knives, ligature material and hardware that before I would have tried to misuse. Short, unaccompanied walks down the road and back, and later to the local park and shops – marathons at the time – were progress landmarks. Eventually travelling on buses and the underground, and being left ‘home alone’, before returning to work, against all the odds and advice. This is why I have vowed to never ever going back and to helping others (1).I meant it.

The fight of our lives

So, my fight, and that of others in a similar situation, is to maintain our sanity, and right to live in relatively quiet enjoyment, without – as in my case – being irretrievably tipped into the abyss.  I have already been destabilised, to an extent, by the possibility of excessive, ‘new noise’ being unfairly dispersed: despite all the warnings, the issues have not, as yet, been properly addressed. Instead mental health, and in particular the affected invisible disability minority have been ignored and isolated. I don’t have to ‘call’ this for what it is, as for most people `it surely speaks for itself.                                             I believe this is unconscionable, and it is why, when political leaders say they will ‘train’ racism away, or conduct research -yet again- instead of acting on what is already known, I truly despair! Either we’re for equality, or we’re not. Either we never discriminate against vulnerable minority groups, or we do. Either we actively promote fairness in all our undertakings, or we don’t. We can’t opt in and out as it suits our mood – Hokey Cokey like – as this is a recipe for moral bankruptcy. We need to be ‘signposts’, not ‘weathervanes’, if we are committed to ‘levelling up’ society, and making a real, sustainable difference. We don’t need any more fake equality or lily-livered commitment to it.

Personally, and on behalf of the invisible disabled, I must also flag up some more concerns. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who are responsible for developing airspace/flightpath change policy and agreeing the ‘big picture’, won plaudits in 2016 when facilitating best practice guidance for aviation passengers with invisible disabilities. Yet disturbingly, there apparently wasn’t any mention of mental health in their recent national consultation on airspace change policy, or any meaningful independent research into the impact of concentrated aviation noise on mental health, or relevant  existing mental health conditions. Yet it is the involuntary customers – those who will have to ‘suck up’ the noise – while others benefit – who will potentially pay the biggest price of all. Frankly, it is quite wrong to appropriate the rights of others to quiet enjoyment of their homes. It is even uglier when this includes the rights of those comprising an invisible disability, minority group, as this is likely to significantly exacerbate the detrimental impact on their wellbeing. (2)

Telling it how it is: the stark reality of mental illness

I have therefore felt forced to ‘tell it how it is’ from an involuntary consumer’s perspective, so  others, including critical industry stakeholders, campaign and community groups, and local and national politicians – may understand the stark reality of mental illness, the struggle to stay well, and the risk of new/concentrated noise potentially leading to an irreversible, or terminal decline, for some overflown. My motivation has always been to stay well, to help others in the process, and to tell the truth, but to never frustrate or to deny the rights of others to a better life – ironically, the rights that are now apparently being denied to a minority group.

It has not been easy to ‘go public’, but so many good people have acknowledged that by discussing the previously ‘undiscussable’, they have been given a voice, and a sense that they are not alone. In fairness, notable authority Dirk Schrekenberg (3) acknowledged that my narratives (blogs) provided a missing link between the empirical research such as his, and the day-to-day struggle to maintain mental health in overflown communities. Also, leading aviation noise campaigner, and commentator, John Stewart (4), has acknowledged the critical risks identified with potential new flightpath configurations, such as ‘hot spots’, and where a break from noise (respite) was unlikely to be adequate for some individuals. In such cases several different local solutions could be found for individuals with significant mental health conditions (illness), and again innovative solutions were suggested. These still remain accessible. More generally, people who needed to access noise mitigation solutions should also be able to – it should not be a ‘post code lottery’.

Ugly politics, horse trading and discrimination

Politics, and especially the ‘politics of noise’ can be extremely ugly. People and even neighbours can be with you one day and against you the next, so long as it pushes noise elsewhere- anywhere except above their heads. Let’s be clear, people don’t want noise. Noise is selfish and can make people meanspirited. And consultation doesn’t sort everything out. It is an imperfect process that usually shifts noise, or more noise, to a weaker community. In this way lives are ‘horse traded’ or bartered away. Although often presented in a more sanitised way, this is the reality. Often people don’t fully understand what has been ‘donated’ to them until it is too late.

New Year’s eve 2020 saw John Stewart publish my blog setting out a series of practical measures that needed to be taken to protect people whose mental health was (most) likely to be affected by new concentrated flightpaths. This was even where breaks from noise, respite, were provided. (5)

Like all blogs in the series since 2015, it was very well received, with one exception – unusually, some of my core followers failed to engage (aviation community and others). I later found out, from trusted sources, that I had been briefed against and consequently marginalised. I found this hard to believe until, out of the blue, I received communications, from a significant national influencer, who was systematically picking apart every recommendation I had made to protect the ‘noise vulnerable’ while  offering nothing in responsedenying even ‘reasonable adjustments’.  They appeared determined to shut me down, and with it, the essential debate I had tried to foster. I doubt if they ever stopped to think whether undermining and isolating me would affect my mental health, or trigger a (final) relapse, instead they were more concerned that debate and support for a  genuine minority group might damage the case for concentrated flight paths or delay their deployment.   

Most recently my blog ‘only ‘fair flightpaths’ will do, when every life matters’, June 2020 (6), received the same ‘isolation treatment’ from my previously avidly loyal aviation community followers (and others) who now resolutely failed to engage on matters they had previously enthused about. Only John Stewart retweeted it, apart from a very healthy cluster of non-aviation followers, recognising the important but neglected, public health/public interest issues at stake. There was a continuing reluctance to acknowledge that the proposed approach to ‘once in a lifetime flightpath change’ needed to address several outstanding issues, including ‘reasonable adjustments’, to ensure that the mental health of all the overflown was protected, and especially those who may have serious (noise sensitive) mental health conditions. It also flagged up other significant issues that needed to be addressed before finally defining the airspace masterplan and operational arrangements – matters which appear still not to be addressed. Please read and share this blog if you haven’t already. It’s a real eye opener.

Sent to Coventry

Being ‘sent to Coventryfor telling the truth, and pleading for help, I find almost impossible to comprehend. In truth it I have found it damaging and it has triggered a marked decline in my mental health.  I’m reminded here that when I worked with vulnerable adults such behaviour was generally regarded as psychological abuse. It’s what happens when good people do nothing.

I am arranging for my blogs to be curated (7) – initially John Stewart has kindly agreed to this – so that they may be accessible for others to understand the struggle for help and support and the nastiness of noise. Lessons need to be learned and acted upon as the mental health of the overflown, and especially those with significant noise affected mental health conditions, are presently simply ignored – airbrushed out of existence – as though they did not exist – like the overflown invisible disabled do not exist. Really? Really, this is not a ‘good look’, nor a good feeling.

Appropriate measures must therefore be agreed and put in place to protect this invisible minority before any airspace changes are agreed or implemented. 

Thank you to all the wonderful people who have so unselfishly helped me to ‘punch above my weight’ and ‘tell it as it really is’, even if the message – the ‘truth’ – has latterly been more heavily supressed. You have been an inspiration.

I know if Mahatma Ghandi was still around, over all he would not be impressed and would probably remind us that ‘’the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable member”. I’ll leave others to make up their own minds about this, but please don’t take long as lives literally hang in the balance.



2Guidance for airlines on assisting people with hidden disabilities. CAA. 2016

But no follow through with those most impacted – the overflown!

3 Dirk Schrekenberg. Center for Applied Psychology, Environmental and Social Research, Sennbrink 46, D-58093 Hagen. Dirk is a pre-eminent authority on environmental noise and aviation.

4 John Stewart is Chair of Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (UK)), committed to reducing noise for the overflown and reduction of night flights.

5  Blog sets out the practical measures that needs to be taken to protect people whose mental health will (most) likely be affected by new concentrated flightpaths. This was even where breaks from noise, respite, are provided

6‘only ‘fair flightpaths’ will do, when every life matters’.June 2020

7 The blogs are a unique record of the struggle for the   impact of aviation noise on mental health, and especially pre-existing noise vulnerable, to be recognised and addressed. They highlight the struggle to remain well in this hostile environment and the risk of irreversibly tipping into the abyss, if agencies fail to act fairly/responsibly.

Flight Paths Matter


by John Stewart

The top subject searched for on the HACAN website is ‘flight paths’.  By some margin….. 

Top Posts/Pages

1. Flight Paths Explained (including future flight paths)           1643

2. A voice for those under Heathrow flightpaths            626

3. Who we are; what we campaign for; our key people        53

4. Latest news                                           51

5. Contact                                           36

6. John Stewart                                         28

7. Court grants Heathrow leave to appeal on third runway         26

8. Heathrow Flight Path Consultation: January to March 2019: Details on consultation and responses                                            23

9. 20 frequently asked questions about a 3rd runway                 23

10. HACAN South East                                  20

Those are the figures for the month 22nd May – 21st June this year.  The total numbers out of lockdown are higher but the pattern is the same.

It ties in with the emails and phone calls which HACAN receives. 

Typical queries include:

  • concerns flight paths might have changed;
  • that they have become more concentrated;
  • queries about areas free of flight paths;
  • questions about where any new flight paths may go;
  • and a desire to see more flight paths in order to give currently overflown communities some respite.

Underlying it all, of course, is noise.

And noise over my community.  Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learnt in 20 years of aviation campaigning is that most people are not too interested in the total number of planes using the airport, or even how many runways it has or wants.  Their focus, usually their sole focus, is on how many planes go over their community and how much noise those planes create.

That’s why flight paths matter.

To communities.

But it is also in the interest of airports to recognise the importance of flight paths.  Sort out the flights paths and relations with the local community will improve and opposition to growth is likely to diminish.

A once in a lifetime chance to sort flight paths

The new flight path technology being brought in across the world gives the aviation industry its big chance to create fairer flight paths and still allow some growth to take place.

The new technology, known as Performance Based Navigation (PBN), will mean narrower, more precise flight paths.  These new routes will create extra capacity, improve the resilience of the airports, produce time and fuel savings for airlines and cut the amount of CO2 per plane.

But they can also, if designed well, bring benefits to residents.  If the narrow routes are rotated they can provide periods of respite from the noise for local communities.  The might allow also an element of dispersal (if that it what residents want) though operationally that may be more difficult.  And these new routes should permit planes to climb more rapidly.  At the moment aircraft, on both arrival and departure, are often held low in order to avoid flight paths to and from nearby airports.  This is particularly the cause in the crowded skies in South England.  The new dedicated routes should avoid this ‘clash’.

Potentially, then, a win-win situation for airlines, airports and communities.

The lifetime opportunity is currently on hold

The programme to introduce new flight paths at London and SE airports has been paused.

There appear to be two reasons for this:

  • The uncertainty about whether Heathrow will be planning flight paths for a two or three runway airport.
  • The impact of coronavirus: flight numbers are not expected to reach their 2019 levels for several years; certainly until 2023.  This means that the pressure is off the authorities to design the new routes as quickly in order to create extra capacity through the introduction of  PBN programme routes

It would be sensible to use the pause to assess how the airspace change programme is shaping up. 

From a community perspective, this means:

Ensuring that residents’ concerns are given equal weigh to industry requirements when designing the new routes;

Carrying out further work on what meaningful respite would look like in practice, building on the ground-breaking work done by Nicole Porter and her team for Heathrow;

Making sure that the ‘balance’ of aircraft on each route is as fair as possible.  By this I mean trying to ensure that no one route is burdened with all the noisiest aircraft.  I understand there are operational limits to this but routes need to be as balanced as possible. 

Recognising that the routes will be flying over people’s homes.  That sounds like an obvious thing to say.  But it is to emphasise that flight paths are more than just lines on maps.  They can have a fundamental impact on people’s lives.  Not on everybody’s as a lot of people are not bothered by the noise.  But for those who are disturbed by it, and don’t have the choice of moving away, that line on the map can affect both their mental and physical health.

But the pause should just be temporary

  • Many residents impacted by all-day flying from Heathrow are clinging to the prospect of new flight paths as possibly their last hope of getting some relief from the noise. 
  • Some communities have been dreaming of this change for a decade and more.  And in the last few years the calls for change has become louder.

I wrote in 2013:  Today’s announcement by National Air Traffic Control (NATS) that it proposes to reconfigure airspace could be more significant that any plans for a new runway.  ‘Airspace’ and ‘flight paths’ sound like a technical turn-off but, in my view, this is the most important and far-reaching aviation announcement of the year.

And in 2014: Whatever happens regarding Heathrow expansion, the current noise climate created by Heathrow requires action.  With or without a third runway, the aim has got be to cut the number of planes going over any one community in any one week.  There is the possibility that could be achieved through a creative use of respite periods.

And in 2016: These people don’t fear new flight paths.  They can’t wait for them to be introduced.  They want the blessed relief that predicable flight paths, switched on a regular basis, would bring.  I am not exaggerating when I say that people ring me to tell me their fervent hope is that they can hold out until the respite comes in.  They don’t have to move away in the meantime because of the noise.  There are even people who have rented out their homes for a few years, intending to move back in when relief and respite become a reality.

A desire for respite, with new areas being avoided if at all possible, was the main message Heathrow got when it consulted on a third runway.  And, to its credit, these are the principles Heathrow has tried to follow in designing its new flight paths.

In 2023 I would love to write a blog that Heathrow has seized the opportunity of a lifetime and put in place flight paths its residents welcomed and the world admired.  It has that chance to do just that.

Can we ‘Build Back Better’…Together?


by John Stewart (my personal thoughts)

‘Build Back Better’ is set to become one of the phrases of 2020. Can, though, we ‘Build Back Better Together? Can we do it in as contentious an area as aviation?

It needs some creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Here are three ideas which could be win-win-win for communities, passengers and the aviation industry:

–       encourage airlines to operate rail services

–       change aviation taxes

–       earmark all tax revenue for investment in cleaner and less noisy planes 

 1. Encourage airlines to operate rail services. There are sound noise and climate arguments for people to be given the choice of switching to rail for short-distance journeys. And the potential is there for it to happen. It is estimated trains can be an alternative for flying at many distances up do 1000 km (Air2Rail, Bleijenberg,

Cost, good connections, ease of booking, travel time can all work against rail. (HACAN has commissioned a study on this which will be published this summer). An enterprising airline might be just the company to sort out some of these barriers. Could Michael O’Leary resist the challenge?

 But airlines, or even airports, could take it a step further. A fast train – their train – bringing passengers directly to their airport in order to get on their long-distance flights. All on the same ticket. No need even to change face-masks!

 If airlines and airports were to have a stake in running trains there would be less resistance to a reduction in short-distance flying. Good for the companies, the environment, the local communities, which would be overflown less, and good for passengers who would have more choice.

2. Change aviation taxes! Air Passenger Duty is not ideal. It is an imperfect tax. It is a blunt instrument. It does little to incentivise the industry to reduce negative impacts. 

 In should come a Frequent Flyers Levy. 

It is a beautiful tax!

Beautiful because…..fairness is at its very heart. Each person is entitled to one tax-free return flight each year but the tax rises with each subsequent flight taken. Most people in the UK would be better off than under the present system where we are all charged Air Passenger Duty. The little-known fact is most people hardly fly at all. Even though Britons fly more on average than other countries, more than half of us took no flights last year; 22% took one return flight; and 11% took two. That leaves just 15% of the population taking 70% of all flights.

Beautiful because… would cut demand but still allow ordinary working families the chance to fly off on holiday. The research suggests that, although some people could still afford to fly very frequently, the overall effect of a Frequent Flyers Levy would be to curb demand.

Beautiful because… doesn’t penalise people who want to visit families and friends in far-flung corners of the earth from time to time since it is imposed on the number of flights taken rather than the distance travelled. That may not be the ideal in climate terms but works for noise and local communities where the key thing is the number of planes using an airport rather than the distance they fly.

Beautiful because… is neither just a noise nor carbon tax but covers both. A noise tax would incentivise noise reduction. A carbon tax or something like the Emissions Trading Scheme would mean airlines are likely to give priority to cutting carbon rather than noise. A Frequent Flyers Levy would do both because it curbs demand. 

3. Earmark all tax revenue for investment in cleaner and less noisy planes. I’ve written previously that aviation has played a critical role in the globalised economy in the past, increasing prosperity and lifting billions in developing countries out of poverty.  That role will continue. And it is because that role will be seen as important that it is essential serious public and private investment goes into research and development of less noisy and cleaner planes.

 So there we have it: three ideas which together help local communities, the wider environment, the willingness of the aviation industry to change and the vast majority of passengers. We can ‘Build Back Better Together’. 


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


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 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.