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

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