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.

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