Heathrow Airport – a chance to become history makers?


By John Stewart

Speculation about new runways and new airports will continue to dominate the headlines over the next couple of years.   But what the aviation industry decides to do about flight paths may have the bigger impact on people’s quality of life.

The UK is facing the biggest changes to its flight paths in half a century.  The same thing is happening across Europe and America.  It is being driven by new technology.  The technology now exists to guide planes much more precisely when they are landing and taking off.  The industry sees this as a chance to make more efficient use of airspace, enable more planes to use its airports and reduce the fuel burn and emissions from each aircraft.

For residents on the ground the all-important question is whether the new technology is used to concentrate flight paths over particular communities or share the noise over a wider area. America appears to be going for concentration, generating significant protests in places likeChicago andNew York.

My own view is that concentration, certainly at big urban airports, is deeply inequitable.  At somewhere like Heathrow or Frankfurt it potentially means non-stop flying, with a plane thundering over every 90 seconds throughout the day.

All the evidence shows that, when asked, communities prefer sharing the pain rather than concentration.  That was the view ofSydney residents after their controversial third runway opened.  And it is also what is emerging from research whichHeathrowAirport is carrying out.

It is becoming clear that Heathrow is coming down on the side of sharing rather than concentration.  Last week it published detailed plans of how it believes it can cut noise overall even if a third runway is built: http://your.heathrow.com/britainsheathrow/downloads/  HACAN has made it clear that we doubt that is achievable.  But where we are at one with Heathrow is in our embrace of respite for residents.

The maps Heathrow published last week give many residents the first glimmer of hope they have had for nearly 20 years that the incessant noise they are experiencing may ease.   The maps show that the aircraft could use perhaps as many as four or six different flight paths before joining their final approach in the Richmond/Brentford area (considerably closer to the airport than they do at present).  Thus concentration would only take place during the last few miles as planes are lined up with the airport but these areas would continue to enjoy some respite as the aircraft would continue to switch the runways they land on during the course of the day.   There are similar dispersal maps for departures.

Of course, for Heathrow the new flight path options are part of its plans to be seen to tackle the toxic question of noise in its attempt to get a third runway.  But, Heathrow admits, its flight path ideas are not dependent on a new runway being built.  They could be implemented with a 2-runway airport.

Over the years HACAN has commissioned surveys which show places like the Oval or Kennington, almost 20 miles from Heathrow, can get more than 40 planes an hour.  This is quite simply not fair on the residents.  There are only three ways to ease their burden: to reduce the overall number of aircraft using Heathrow (highly unlikely), close Heathrow by building Boris Island or expanding Stansted (not an option that provides short-term relief) or sharing the noise burden more equitably.

The aviation industry, in looking at its flight paths, has an historic opportunity to avoid the inequity caused by traffic noise.  In my book, Why Noise Matters, I wrote that “traffic noise these days is largely a main road problem.”  This is because “the policy in theUK, and in many other European countries, has been to direct traffic away from the so-called ‘residential’ roads on to the ‘main’ roads”.  Concentration has become the norm.  Inequity has become embedded.

Heathrow Airport Ltd has the chance to become history-makers.  It looks as if it may be ready to seize that chance. 

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