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.  

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