A three runway Heathrow; 700 more planes a day; can it really be quieter as is claimed

Here’s an odd thing.  The number of flights at Heathrow has more than doubled since the 1980s yet, according to official statistics, the number of people annoyed by the noise has fallen from 1.2million in 1980 to around 250,000.  http://www.heathrow.com/file_source/HeathrowNoise/Static/Noise_Action_Plan.pdf

But this is more than an historical curiosity. 

It matters for the future because the Department for Transport’s National Policy Statement, Heathrow Airport and Sir Howard Davies all argue that if a third runway – with 700 more flights a day – is built fewer people will be annoyed by noise from Heathrow than are today.

In my view, the apparent contradiction is down to the inadequate way noise annoyance has been measured. 

The noise of each aircraft is measured and the number of planes going overhead counted.  The noise is then averaged out over a 16 hour day but – and this is the critical point – too much weight has been given to the noise of individual aircraft and not enough weight to the number of planes passing overhead.  In 2003 HACAN published The Quiet Con which found that, using this measurement, one Concorde passing overhead once every two hours caused as much annoyance as a 757 flying over one every two minutes.  That is not how people hear noise.  http://hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/hacan.the_quiet_con.pdf

It is this which has allowed official figures to show that the numbers impacted by noise have fallen significantly while the number of planes using Heathrow has risen equally significantly.  And also why it can be claimed the number of people annoyed by the noise from a 3 runway Heathrow will be less than are currently affected.

I do, though, see signs of change in the air.  The Airports Commission, under Howard Davies, did a good job in updating the noise metrics.  And the Government’s recent consultation on airspace policy built upon that.

There are two critical changes that are proposed.

One is the recommendation that, in assessing noise annoyance, in addition to averaging out the noise, decision-makers should take account of the number of aircraft going over head and the loudness of each individual plane.

Secondly, the cut-off point of where people start to get annoyed has been lowered.  It used to be where the noise averaged out at 57 decibels over a 16 hour day.  That was unrealistically low.  It excluded places like Putney and Fulham where aircraft noise is clearly a problem.

The new cut-off point, expected to be announced by the Department for Transport (DfT) shortly, is likely to be 54 or 51 decibels.  It is backed up by research the DfT commissioned from the CAA.  This shows that 9% of people are highly annoyed when the noise averages out at 54 decibels and 7% at 51 decibels.  http://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP%201506%20FEB17.pdf.  In geographical terms around that goes as far as about Clapham to the east and about 16 miles to the west: around 65,000 people in total.  The lower average of 51% extends about as far as Peckham.

The expected new metrics are not perfect.  For example, they do not adequately measure the real level of annoyance of people in areas that may just have planes for part of the year but, when they do so, are badly hit.  Places such as Teddington and Ealing are overflown for about 30% of the time in a typical year (when an east wind blows).  They fall outside the annual noise annoyance contours. There needs to be a metric to capture their situation.  But, on the whole, the new metrics have the potential to reflect more accurately the situation on the ground.

So is it at all possible that a three runway Heathrow – with 700 more flights a day – will be quieter than the two runway airport is today?  Individual planes will become less noisy, operational practices will improve and noise annoyance will be measured more accurately.

But, over the last quarter of a century, the problem for residents has been the sheer volume of planes going overhead.  700 more with a third runway.  Of course that number includes landings and take-offs and it is not 700 over any one community.  And measures to increase the angle of descent and ascent will assist.  And creative thinking about respite will be important; indeed will be essential.

But it is that 700 figure which worries communities.  It is like 700 dark clouds on the horizon.  It is the basis of community opposition to a third runway.

The Third Runway is not a done deal!

On the day that the consultation about a third runway closes it is still my view that a new runway at Heathrow is far from a done deal.

There are still many hurdles for the airport to overcome.  So far it has got over just two of them: the recommendation of a third runway by the Airports Commission in July 2015 and then last October the announcement from Theresa May that a new runway at Heathrow was her Government’s preferred option.

The next big hurdle will be the vote in Parliament later this year or early next year.  Technically, it is a vote on the National Policy Statement on Airports (NPS) but in reality it is about a third runway.  It would be a surprise, though, if Heathrow falls at this hurdle.  With a majority of Conservative and Labour MPs expected to back the NPS is likely to be approved.

Perhaps the one thing which could alter this, or certainly reduce the majority, is the growing realization that the economic benefits of a third runway have been significantly downgraded.  The Airports Commission put them at £211bn (over a 60 year period).  The Department for Transport now says they will be no more than £61bn, and a lot less if the costs of noise, air pollution etc are taken into account.  Heathrow’s promises to the regions were based on the higher figure.  There are signs that it is beginning to hit home to MPs representing these areas that the benefits to them might be a lot less than they were led to believe.

Even if a third runway does scale the NPS hurdle it could emerge as a different beast.  A number of MPs with whom HACAN has spoken are attracted by the idea of making their vote for a third runway dependent on tougher conditions than the Department for Transport is promising.  For example, there is growing backing for a night flight ban to be longer than six and a half hours.

But beyond the National Policy Statement further hurdles remain.

There will almost certainly be a legal challenge by Greenpeace and a number of local authorities.  The case will be led by the same legal team which mounted a successful challenge to the last Labour Government’s plans for a third runway 10 years ago so the chance of it succeeding cannot be discounted.  Certainly a number of the local authority leaders believe they have a strong case.  It would need, though, to be a decisive win to deal a knock-out blow to a third runway rather than simply force the Government to come back with an amended scheme.

Air pollution will continue to cast a pall of uncertainty over the third runway.  The previous Government’s air quality strategy, published a few weeks ago, appeared to suggest air pollution around Heathrow could not be sorted until at least 2030 – five years after the new runway would be due to open.  Governments can often wriggle out of environmental problems but its wriggle-room on air pollution may be limited given the fact air pollution is such a high-profile issue, certainly in London.  It is much less dominant outside the capital where leaders tend to see it as largely a London problem.

A third hurdle is the continuing uncertainty over the costs of the road and rail infrastructure needed to serve a new runway:  how high will they be and who will pay them?  The consultation document did not clarify either question.  The costs have been put at anything between £5bn and £18bn.  Heathrow has said it will only pay its share of the costs which it puts at £1.bn.  I would not argue that Heathrow should pay all the costs because the wider economy will also benefit from the new road and rail schemes but until it is clear what costs will fall on the public purse and whether the new Government will be prepared to pay them, this remains a hurdle in the path of a third runway.

The final hurdle is the continuing opposition to a third runway.  I suspect we will only be able to gauge the actual strength of this opposition when more will be known about flight paths next year.  Heathrow is trying to involve the community as closely as possible in developing its flight paths (flight paths will change significantly even at a two runway airport due to the introduction of new technology).  This makes sense but they know and we know it is flight paths which are most likely get local communities truly engaged in the issue.  The flight paths hurdle is the joker in the pack. Nobody really knows how it will play out.

So, as we await a new Government in a few weeks, we are about mid-point in the hurdles race and still uncertain if any of them will trip up Heathrow’s plans.  As a boy I thrilled to David Hemery’s gold medal win in the 800 metres hurdles in the 1968 Olympics – https://youtu.be/fzofxFyNuG4 (worth watching if only for David Coleman’s legendary commentary).  Hemery dominated the field.  If Heathrow get to the finishing tape, it will be a very different type of race: one hurdle, one formidable challenge, at a time.  And there are still plenty of them to come.

‘Respite Plus’ needed for aircraft noise ‘hotspots’


by John Stewart

Some years ago, while doing some work for the UK Noise Association, I was asked to shortlist the noisiest roads in the UK.  I took a trip like no other.  Not for me seeking out the quiet beauty spots, the wooded glens or the babbling brooks.  I was on a mission to find the noisiest roads…and to spend as much time beside them as possible.

There are similar noise ‘hotspots’ under the Heathrow flight paths.  Go down to Cranford, for example, the last settlement in Hounslow before you reach Heathrow.  Mere words can’t convey the intensity of the noise.

Cranford, rightly, gets special insulation treatment.  Homes, including roofs, are fully insulated.  It get’s respite, a half day’s break from the noise when the planes are landing, but respite alone would not be enough.  It needs and gets ‘respite plus’.

Cranford, along with some of the other places, very close to the airport are obvious candidates for respite plus.  But are there others?  Are there less obvious hotspots which could qualify?

Heathrow is committed to the principle of respite but should it be looking at additional measures that would be required in the hotspots.  Of course, ‘hotspots’ would need to be carefully defined as funds are not limitless.

I would suggest that these are the sort of criteria which could be used in defining a hotspot:

  • The noise of the aircraft
  • The frequency of the aircraft
  • The number of hours without a break
  • Whether an area gets both arrivals and departures
  • Whether an area is overflown by aircraft from one or more flight path or airport

Perhaps the defining criteria would be that somebody living in a hot spot could be endangering their mental or physical health if ‘respite plus’ was not offered.  There may be a role for the soon-to-be-established Independent Noise Authority in helping define the criteria.

The airport – any airport – would then be required to work alongside the householders and the local authority to look at what respite plus might entail.  This would not be an easy task but the first step on the road would be to recognise there are hotspots where respite on its own may not be enough to mitigate the noise problem.


Why the Airspace Policy Consultation is potentially a radical, breakthrough document


by John Stewart

It is in danger of being forgotten.  Yet the Airspace Policy Consultation contains a raft of proposals which will radically change the way the aviation industry does business.   

All eyes are focused on the parallel third runway consultation.  Understandably so.  Any new runway built anywhere arouses strong emotions.  And at Heathrow the fears are particularly acute.  Already the its aircraft fly over many, many more people than any other airport in Europe.  There are deep concerns about the impact of a quarter of a million more planes a year.

But can I take you back twenty years to the late 1990s to illustrate the depth of the changes being proposed in the Airspace Policy Consultation. They were dark days.  Major changes were made to the way planes flew into Heathrow…..without a word of consultation, far less compensation.  Outdated metrics were the norm.  Respite was limited.  Heathrow sought to infiltrate and undermine community groups. (I met the infiltrators years later!).  The CAA and NATS were remote and unresponsive.  And the Department for Transport sought no real engagement.

The consultation on Airspace Policy is potentially a breakthrough document.  It contains many measures that many organizations have been campaigning for; in the case of HACAN for nigh on two decades.

Perhaps the most dramatic is the proposal to sideline the 57dbLAeq metric as the indicator of the ‘onset of community annoyance’ and replace it with 54dbLAeq and 51dbLAeq metrics.  These are very similar to those recommended by the World Health Organisation.  The consultation document also recommends the use of N60 and N70 metrics.  All this is not perfect- we still need, for example, an additional metric which measures the noise only on the days when the planes are overhead rather than just relying on an annual average – but it is a bold step forward; the biggest in over 20 years.

The consultation also endorses respite as a key option open to airports.  Gone are the days when concentration was the order of the day.  I’ve written many times about the importance of respite to local communities.  Providing it will not always be easy.  In particular, it will be challenging for NATS as it will require air traffic controllers to take a more creative approach to their work but it is now embedded as a key component of Government policy.

The Independent Noise Authority is also central to the new approach Government proposes to take.  The details of the new Authority have yet to be worked out.  Some will argue it should have more teeth. Some of the airports and the airlines will be wary of it.  But it will happen.

For the first time communities will be entitled to be consulted when changes – large or small – are made to airspace and flight paths.  Campaign groups will be pressing hard for the engagement to be meaningful, recognising the devil is in the detail of a proposal that has yet to be fully developed.

And that’s a key point generally.  To fulfill it’s potential, the final paper the Government produces has got to get the detail right.  The detail on community engagement; the detail on compensation; the detail on the Noise Authority; the detail on the balance between aviation and community interests.

The Airports Commission has faced a lot of criticism from a number of quarters but there can be little doubt it brought a fresh pair of eyes to key aspects of noise policy.  Civil servants within the Department of Transport, with the backing of the aviation minister Lord Ahmad, have built upon the Commission’s work to produce a set of proposals which don’t  deserve to get lost in the publicity surrounding the consultation about a third runway at Heathrow.

The Airspace Policy consultation can be found at:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/588186/uk-airspace-policy-a-framework-for-balanced-decisions-on-the-design-and-use-of-airspace-web-version.pdf


One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Guest blog: Chris Keady


One flew over the cuckoo nest, then another hundred, and another, and another………

The classic film ‘one flew over the cuckoo nest’ provided a stark insight into mental illness and treatment in the 70’s. Today, our approach to Mental Health, and particularly mental illness, has progressed significantly. So too has the world of aviation, and increasingly its growing concern with aviation noise, and latterly, in some quarters at least, good mental health.

Genuine concern for mental health of overflown in UK or pie in the sky?

Currently our skies are being ‘divvied up’ to allow significant growth in the number of aircraft using it, now, and well into the future. These changes have been described by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as ‘once in a lifetime’. It follows, therefore, that the greatest care and attention should be applied to designing and managing this transition. This is especially so as there is absolutely no chance of a second a chance, and some peoples’ lives are therefore literally hanging by a thread, depending on a reasonable outcome.

But aviation policy has shifted towards compressing noise footprints (the area over which noise pollutes) making them smaller, but more concentrated, and then compounding this by concentrating the noise on the ‘fewest people’. While such an approach is considered more efficient and effective by the aviation industry, they don’t have to ‘live’ with the downside – the misery they can sometimes create. Sure, impressive benefits can be listed but for the first time overflown or more heavily overflown, some may lose any right to the quiet enjoyment of their home, their physical and mental health may be adversely affected, life expectancy reduced, and home potentially blighted. Admittedly this may only a minority, but it is a significant minority, and one that needs to be properly addressed.

In addition, no one knows what ‘dose’ is safe! Is it 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 aircraft overhead per day? Then the next day, and the next, and the next. If you survive you’ll be allowed some days off, before it starts all over again. This is an example of what respite might look like. There are, of course other permutations, and we’ll return to this shortly.

Unfortunately, if you care to think about it, this Government policy is neither fair nor ethical. It needs to be more flexible and fairer, paying compensation where people are significantly impacted by airspace change. This is a government issue as much as it an aviation issue. It is also time decent people spoke up before it’s too late.

Noise sewers – twenty first century apartheid

The term ‘noise sewers’ was recently coined and used I believe by the Chief Executive of the CAA to describe the undesirable impact of overconcentrated flight paths, and therefore noise pollution (one must not forget particulates and other environmental pollution either). He went on to explain that such overconcentration was rarely necessary, and therefore implied that they shouldn’t feature in airspace (re)design.

Certainly, this was making the ‘right kind of noise’ with the significantly overflown, and soon to be significantly overflown communities. No doubt it was sincere. But it is very unclear whether the aviation industry’s feet are yet following the words (industry/organisation cultures are hard to shift). This expectation needs to be delivered.

John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, [Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise] has fought tirelessly to reduce aviation noise, and more recently to raise the profile and issues around mental health -providing a platform which has allowed me to share my insights and ideas. He first coined the term ‘noise ghettos’ to describe the ‘locked in’ communities deluged with aviation noise. The term ‘ghetto’ hinted at the injustice of this ‘fencing in’ and the denudation of human rights.

This injustice still exists in places and while respite may provide a break, and a genuine solution for many, like most things there is no ‘silver bullet’. In providing respite, noise is effectively relocated elsewhere, but in a highly concentrated and targeted way, if policy makers get their way. Unaddressed this may cause blight and physical, and/or mental ill health. This is why the infrastructure and management systems to manage it scrupulously fairly must be in place. Compensation should also be available in exceptional cases.

There is no safe noise dose, no research to establish what might be safe, so ’noise overdoses’ are likely to occur in some cases with potentially catastrophic effects on mental and physical health. Also there may be no Independent Noise Ombudsman, who one can go to, who could adjudicate on the impact of such changes or to provide redress. Yet this is what was unanimously called for at the Let Britain Fly Aircraft Noise Summit 2014.

Why should decent people have to lose out, through no fault of their own? The risk with airspace (flightpath) change, currently subject to DfT consultation, is that as things stand one may be excluded from any form of redress, yet have their life and enjoyment of their  home profoundly negatively affected. This is so very wrong. It doesn’t happen with HS2 or any major road scheme does it? Why should the impact of ‘once in a lifetime airspace change’, be treated any differently to new runway impacts??? Peoples’ lives are at stake here, including the sort of people, in many cases, who have done the hard yards, paid into the system, taken zilch out, and put something back into society. Please pause and do the right thing.

Consider going from few aircraft flying overhead, to perhaps 400 or more per day (including very early and late), flying low, at perhaps 90 second intervals. Would you like it? Would you think it was right? Of course not, no one in their right mind would. So why allow it? So why not do something about it? It doesn’t need to be so hardcore concentrated, it can, and should be diluted, where necessary.

Give us a break!

Respite  which has been briefly touched upon, is the latest offer from the aviation industry. The idea, in essence, is that by providing the overflown with breaks from noise this will improve their quality of life. In many heavily overflown areas it is understandably welcomed with open arms. This isn’t hard to understand, and there can be no argument about this. The downside is that for breaks to be provided other new or existing areas need to be overflown – noise will be redistributed. This will need to be resolved fairly and sensitively.

Respite has also gained popularity on the back of the NORAH study into the effects of concentrated flightpaths at Frankfurt airport. It was found that concentrated flightpaths led to depression in some overflown people, and that respite was valued by those heavily overflown. Notably, the impact on pre-existing severe mental health conditions was outside the scope of this study, but other European research suggests that such conditions increase the susceptibility to harmful effects from such noise. This is a major ‘blind spot’ (and risk) for current UK airspace redesign, aviation and public health policy generally.

It is crucial, therefore, that the risks inherent in this approach are fully evaluated, understood, and communicated. Above all those who will be expected to carry significant new noise, should be assisted, where necessary with appropriate noise reduction initiatives, and in exceptional cases, assisted to move on. There are many innovative schemes that can be developed to deliver this, so people are not otherwise ‘locked in’ by a sky of noise. I presented the ‘Respite Plus’ solution at the House of Commons seminar on Aviation Noise and Mental Health 2016, as in some exceptional cases respite alone, will be inadequate. It’s time has come.

Far too many flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Having fought back from the abyss of severe mental ill health, I have since 2014 been privileged to have shared several platforms with John Stewart addressing aviation noise, and in my case it’s relationship with mental health. It has been essential, therapeutic, and I had hoped it would make a difference.

I have pitched at the GLA, House of Commons and even on BBC radio 4. I flew the flag for the discounted and unrepresented, and wore my heart on my sleeve, saying it as it was.

Not once, however, did anyone from the main policy or regulatory agencies stop to have a word, or a conversation about the ideas ventilated at the events or in subsequent in blogs, which attracted a lot of attention in the UK and abroad. I regret this, and I also find it ominous, as there is currently a DFT consultation on airspace change underway. It is why I have been forced in this blog to discuss the undiscussable.

It so easy to selfishly park noise on others, especially in a highly concentrated way. If this occurs at least ensure that those affected are adequately protected, and give them the means of redress. Don’t pretend that noise is no big deal and that periodic breaks will ‘sort it’ for everyone. It certainly will help many, but not all. Some with noise sensitive illnesses may be so exhausted, that by the time a break comes round they are unable to benefit from it.

I have also encountered some other excellent people on my journey including Ruth Cadbury (MP) and Dr Tania Mathias (MP), amongst others – people who cared, in positions of responsibility, and who really understood and were trying to promote the mental health agenda. Also, Dirk Schreckenberg a leading researcher, expert and commentator on aviation noise and mental health (associated with the NORAH research), and who has done a great deal to get people to sit up, think, and do something about the subject.

Even Matt Gorman (Heathrow Airports Sustainability and Environment Director), I would include on my long list. I have sought to persuade him that Heathrow should be world leaders in developing products and services to assist the ‘noise vulnerable’ in living, rather than ‘existing’, with aircraft noise – there are so many gaps and opportunities at present, which are ‘win wins’, particularly around identifying and meeting such needs.

There is also so much that can, and should be done, if the Government, and Local Authorities, and Public Health Bodies focused on this important, but ‘at risk’ constituency. Why then don’t we get on and do it and Save Our Souls?

One flew over the cuckoo nest, then 100, then another and another ……and the next day and the next……Why then ask ‘can aviation noise cause depression/severe depression, or mental ill health’? Just ask yourself, ‘does a duck quack’?

Why flight paths are missing from the consultation on 3rd runway


by John Stewart

The lack of information about where the new flights will be is emerging as a key criticism of the Department for Transport’s current consultation into the third runway at Heathrow.  Commonsense would suggest that flight paths should be an integral part of any consultation on any new runway.  After all, most people are pretty agnostic about a new runway.  They only get interested if they hear that the runway will mean flights or more flights over their homes.  Yet read the Department’s consultation document or go to one of its public exhibitions and information about flight paths is missing.

I’m not sure this is a deliberate plot to minimize the opposition to a third runway by withholding flight path information from people.  It is more the result of very bad timing.  The third runway consultation is being run in parallel to a national consultation on air space policy.  The latter is being driven by a worldwide plan to modernize and make more efficient use of airspace.  This would save the airlines money, time and fuel as well as cutting their climate change emissions.  Also, it would allow airports to operate more flexibly and effectively. The consultation is asking for views on the principles which should inform airspace policy – for example, should flight paths be concentrated or dispersed; how much importance do people attach to respite; what would meaningful respite would look like.

And therein lies the problem for the third runway consultation.  Until these key principles have been decided neither the Department for Transport (DfT) nor Heathrow can know for sure where the new flight paths for a third runway will be.  Indeed, they cannot predict what will happen to flight paths even if Heathrow remains a two-runway airport.

So why, you might reasonably ask, did the DfT not consult on airspace policy well before the consultation on the third runway?  The civil servants were keen to do so.  Ministers, maybe understandably but unfortunately, have spent the last two years so focused on the toxic question of where a new runway should go that they allowed a backlog of other matters to build up.

Heathrow Airport itself is planning to start consulting in the autumn on the principles behind any flight path changes and to involve local communities in the process.  And in 2018 flight paths will form part of its detailed plans for a third runway if Parliament approves the new runway.

Through no fault of Heathrow this will be the first time that many, many people will be aware that a third runway flight path could affect them.  I suspect there will be real anger.  The fact is Ministers, by refusing to sort out flight path policy well in advance of the consultation, have caused an unholy mess.

The DfT appointed the former judge, Sir Jeremy Sullivan, to ensure the third runway consultation was fair and reasonable.  I trust he will have a few choice words for ministers on the absence of flight paths when he submits his report on the process in early summer.


Mental Health and Flight Paths: what is required

Guest blog

by Chris Keady

16th January 2017

Transforming the way we deal with mental health problems          Aspiration ready for take-off?

This (welcome) aspiration from Prime Minister Theresa May comes in the same week in which she acknowledges that “for too long mental illness has been something of a hidden injustice in [Britain]” and she therefore wants to use the power of government …. to transform the way mental health problems [are dealt with] right across society”.

Why should this matter? Well it matters, if justice, humanity, or equality count for anything, and “if lives are not to be destroyed” (the PM’s words, not mine). Bottom line, therefore, we need to see the intentions embedded in the practical implementation of public policy decisions, and in meaningful preventative measures, not gimmicks, which can, in the long run, save money and lives (for example, there are over 6,000 deaths by suicide each year in the UK costing in excess of £10bn)

But what do ‘mental health problems’ look like?

There are a myriad of mental health conditions which affect people in the UK, and indirectly, their families and loved ones, in often very challenging and cruel ways. Many are treatable, some aren’t, with suicide accounting for more than 6,000 lives a year. However, for the purposes of this blog I shall concentrate on depression/severe depression, as it is something I know about, and which is relevant in the context of aviation noise/airspace change. Please let me explain.

A decade ago I was a ‘car crash’. My mental health had unravelled like a ball of wool bringing me to my knees. I languished on secure hospital wards as I failed to respond to treatment for severe depression which was accompanied by several complications. I was in the bowels of hell.

I was reduced to a shuffling husk of the man who had once been so capable and accomplished. I had no hope.

My mind had become my prison. Not only was I afraid of other patients, but I was also afraid of most staff. On my first night on a new ward, having been shifted from another hospital, I had barricaded myself into my room by dismantling parts of a wardrobe: I can still remember the fear. Every night I would lay awake waiting for something awful to happen once lights went out. Every night I would hear the roar of what I imagined were furnaces into which patients were dispatched….

My family eventually saved me by providing a supportive and caring environment, taking me home when everyone else had given up. I was still very far from well, and it was thought that I may never recover. Then the ‘hard yards’ began, but there was always someone to pick me up, to reassure me. One step forward, two back sometimes. Small victories on good days, such as walking to the bottom of the road by myself and coming back unscathed, swapping Velcro trainers for lace ups (laces were considered a suicide risk at one time), going on public transport and finding one’s way home without a crisis, going to the local shops or the local park. All this would be routine for most people, but for me they were ‘Everests’ – giant steps, on the road to recovery. Eventually I returned to work, helped by a compassionate employer, supportive colleagues, and a thoughtful and extended rehabilitation programme.

I am desperate to stay well – who wouldn’t in the circumstances? Besides the prospects of recovery from a further relapse are unlikely. But I am now alarmed by the possibility of what I‘ve described as ‘the mental health car crash’ that airspace change (a national programme) may unleash, unless great care is taken.  Such airspace change has been described as a ’once in a lifetime opportunity by the Civil Aviation Agency’, and so it is. But the opportunity must not be driven purely by economic interests, and it requires a more balanced, humane approach than that currently signalled by the industry. 

Other concerns

I have several, including:

  • Wrong balance

 If the wrong balance is struck in the case of over concentrating aircraft and noise along narrow corridors and selective strands of communities. In such a case noise may be excessively compressed and concentrated on parts of communities, instead of sharing it around more equitably (dilution), where feasible.

  • Fair flight paths who decides

 Who calibrates flight paths? Is – to use skiing terms – the flight path a ‘black run’ or a novice, significantly easier, ’green’ run? How are they equalised?  I’ll have a ‘green run’ by the way, please, if I must have one at all.

  • Consultation

 The idea that one can consult noise away is flawed. While it may help if designed and implemented well, it ultimately merely shifts noise around. There is, therefore, a real risk that the weakest, those who are not well represented, either individually or collectively, or those with noise sensitive health conditions, will end up under ‘noise ghettos’ that airspace change may have had the opportunity to design ou

  • Independent Noise Regulator

 There needs to be an independent noise regulator as there is too much at stake. The regulator needs to adjudicate on flight path changes, amongst other things, and command the trust and respect of the overflown – the most important stakeholders of all.

  • Mental illness (depression) from over concentrated aviation noise

The use of concentrated flight paths at Frankfurt Airport gave rise to significant levels of depression among the overflown. The Norah Report suggests that respite may help. This is very welcome, as it is a very under researched and under recognised area. For example, what dose is safe?

It is unclear, though, if anyone studied had or was prone to severe pre-existing depression or a history of such, and how they were affected, or helped. I’m mentioning this here, not as a ‘show stopper’ or ‘spoiler’, but genuinely because this is potentially a high-risk category. Such ‘hotspots’ are likely to require further treatment where they are identified.

Every effort should be made to use continuous climb outs, curved approaches, and other techniques to mitigate noise, also.

  • Least harm versus fewest people

The present approach is to design flight paths to affect fewest people. This should be used as a rule of thumb perhaps but not an inviolable principle; since minimising people overflown maximises the impact on those that are. To be candid, this is hardly fair, and therefore greater flexibility is likely to cause least harm (noise doses will be less concentrated).

Green shoots?

John Stewart, Chair of HACAN, has initiated and/or collaborated on a range of important initiatives over the past 12 months. Notably these include:

  • HACAN’s work in promoting awareness of aviation noise and its impact on mental health through seminal blogs and the ‘high’ of a shared platform with the Aviation Environment Federation (Aef) at the House of Commons, ‘Aviation Noise and Mental Health’, event (July 2016);
  • HACAN and Heathrow Airport promoting the role of an independent noise regulator; and
  • Respite studies to inform thinking and debate around airspace change, its potential application and possible benefits.

This is to be applauded, and while nothing is ‘settled’ the work-in-progress could contribute towards a portfolio solution (usually there is no panacea). Such a portfolio might embrace further mitigation opportunities, pilot ‘quiet home’ schemes, and, in exceptional circumstances’ supported exit strategies for the seriously health affected, if a more widely available scheme is unavailable. These last few points may lead to eyes rolling and guffawing in some quarters, but those reacting in such a way are likely to be those who do not have to involuntarily consume what’s ‘dished up’ above their heads. There is a raft of ways, some innovative, to address this, with thumbnail outlines provided in HACAN guest blogs, and an entreaty to the Mayor London.

A message to the Prime Minister

Your statements about mental health in the past week have been enormously welcome, and frank. You have struck a common chord in so accurately pointing out that mental health is an area which remains stigmatised, and a hidden injustice for far too long.

Acknowledging this, and that ‘lives can be destroyed’, is refreshing, and I sense genuinely sincere, as is the commitment to use the power of government to transform the way mental health problems are dealt with across society.

The litmus test, however, must be to see the intentions embedded in the practical implementation of public policy decisions, and meaningful preventative measures, not gimmicks, which can, in the long run, save money and lives.

In the context of aviation, and airspace change policy/strategy, therefore, one will  need to see clear, practical measures designed to prevent mental illness, both generally, and more selectively for any high-risk groups.

This will not compromise the drive for economic growth but it will genuinely show that we are a ‘Great’ Britain and a ‘shared society’ that is not only ‘open for business’, but is one which can, and does, look out for, and after, the vulnerable.

Therefore may we please push the envelope of possibility, and strain every sinew to deliver fair and appropriate solutions for those who may otherwise be expected to pay for aviation expansion and airspace change with their lives.

What if a crash did happen over London……


Guest Blog

The Go Around by Ylva French

 The Go Around is a story for the 21st century where millions of people enjoy the ease and pleasure of air travel but also live in cities and towns below busy flight paths.

Every day some 1,300 aircraft land and take off from Heathrow Airport (as many of you are well aware).  Most days I can see those aircraft from my flat as they descend in an orderly line over central London, heading west.  It’s a miracle that it hardly ever goes wrong.

After all so many things could happen from human error and mechanical failure to terrorist attacks and – in the last year a new hazard – drones.  Several years ago I had the idea to write a fictional story about an accident on the flight path and what it would mean on the ground.  I finished the story and put it away.  A visit to the Heathrow Control Tower in the spring of last year brought it all back and I decided to rework the story and publish it as an eBook.

 It is a sunny afternoon in August and conditions at Heathrow Airport are perfect with aircraft on the flight path approaching the runway in a steady stream.  The unthinkable happens – two aircraft collide over London’s western suburbs. The peace and enjoyment of a summer Saturday is shattered, as London’s emergency services respond to the disastrous consequences.

 Quite a sombre subject, you will agree, as inevitably it involves many people dying and others suffering injury and loss.  But there are miracles too, in this story, many individual acts of consideration and bravery as well as an unlikely report that there are two survivors from one of the planes. Is that possible?

As the world’s media gather at the disaster centre in a town hall in South West London, the quest starts to find out what went wrong.  Somebody must surely be at fault – or is it just the systems pushed to their limit?

All the characters and events in this book are purely imaginary.

The Go Around by Ylva French is available from the Amazon Kindle Store, www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com


2017 won’t all be about a 3rd runway

2017 won’t all be about a third runway at Heathrow.  A new runway will feature heavily in a Government consultation paper – the National Policy Statement – expected to be published in late January.  But by the end of the year the Government also expects to have consulted on a range of national issues, including noise and climate change, with a view to publishing an Aviation White Paper in 2018.

It will start with noise.  Alongside its consultation on a third runway, the Department for Transport is looking to publish its draft Airspace Strategy.  But this will be about more than airspace; it will cover all aspects of aviation noise.

Across the world airspace is being modernized.  Nations are taking advantage of the fact that new computer technology can guide aircraft much more precisely in order to make more efficient use of airspace.  It can save airlines time, money and fuel as well as reduce their CO2 emissions.

By 2024 all European nations – whether inside or outside the EU – will be expected to modernize their airspace.

The Airspace Strategy will set out these issues and the options around modernization – and particularly its impact on flight paths – open to the Government, airlines, airports and air traffic controllers.

A key issue for residents will be around the concentration of flight paths.  The new precision technology makes concentration much more feasible.  Air traffic controllers find it easier to manage and it has obvious benefits for airlines.

Until now the UK Government has tended to favour concentration of flight paths, with respite permitted as an option in certain cases.  The concept of respite is likely to feature more heavily in the new strategy.

At an airport such as Heathrow concentrating all the flights over particular communities would create noise ghettos.  It would simply be unacceptable and would create the sort of furore that has been seen at a number of American airports in recent years.

During the consultation period Heathrow Airport is expecting to publish the study it has commissioned on what meaningful respite would look like.  It is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever undertaken.

However, the consultation will seek views on other aspects of aviation noise.  For example, it will ask about the best way of measuring noise annoyance.  It is likely to move away from reliance on the 57 LAeq decibel contour as the point at which community annoyance is said to set in and rely instead on a suite of metrics to measure noise annoyance.  HACAN – and others – have been consistently campaigning for this for many years and indeed decades.

The consultation will also seek views on an Independent Aviation Noise Authority – a concept we have promoted for many years.

This consultation, leading to the White Paper, will set out aviation noise policy for many years to come.  As campaigners, we have the awesome responsibility but also the great opportunity to influence the policy; to it include many of the measures we have been lobbying for over many years.  The White Paper will not result in the immediate improve to the noise climate we all want to see but it does give us a once-in-a-generation chance to have a real input into the country’s aviation noise policy.

Why having good mental health isn’t a right anymore?


Guest blog:  The author of this powerful story about the impact concentrated flight path on his mental health has requested we do not reveal his identity.

If 10 years ago, when I brought my house, someone had said to me one day you will be writing a blog on the effect of airplane noise on your mental health I may have paused for a thought, but after a mere second into that through would have completely dismissed it. Surely, the government would have to protect us from such a ludicrous suggestion, wouldn’t they?

10 years later, it turns out I would have been wrong. Not when it comes to the airspace anyhow. We all know the government wants more planes in the sky. Theresa May wants to let the rest of the world know “the UK is open for business”, but no matter the cost to the health of the public it seems.

I don’t want to get into the politics of what is right for the UK or not, I just want my pain to go away. The feeling of helplessness, anxiety and feeling trapped are now what I feel when I lay in bed at night.

Before, I get too deep into how it feels to be depressed I would like to let you know how I became this way. The Department of Transport in 2013 made the decision to reduce the number of people effected by plane noise and pollution. Sounds great, right? What did they do, reduce the number of night flights or reduce the number of flights in general? No? Go on tell me, I sense you are thinking. They made the decision to concentrate all the flights over one area of a flight path. One flight path is around 3km wide, so all the planes that used that 3km wide flight path are now flying within a very small narrow corridor.

The issue is now the technology used is so perfect a plane will follow the plane before, in exactly the same place and so on. Yes, on paper I guess it looked like it worked; less people should notice air traffic noise. I am not sure they noticed it before anyhow, I didn’t and I have lived in Hounslow, Twickenham, Teddington and Richmond before I brought a house 10 miles away from Heathrow. Their efforts to reduce the noise have in fact made matters so much worse for the fewer people under these flight paths than they ever were for the people they have reduced it for.  So, now you know, I live under one of these concentrated flight paths.

So, back to mental health.  It started off me being woken up by late flying planes and generally being upset with the increase in noise. I started to call Heathrow and ask what has happened, not knowing what a flight path was; I would ask questions like “have you changed the flight paths?” to which they would reply “no”. They were technically right and played off my lack of knowledge on flight paths.

It continued to get worse and worse, so bad in fact I had to leave my job in the city. I just wasn’t sleeping and didn’t understand why. Heathrow told me they hadn’t changed anything; it must be me, I thought.

This year the concentrated flight path got too much for me, one night I woken up at 3am and started to have a panic attract – it hit me, I had cracked. The signs where there, I had started to feel anxious about going to bed. I was becoming down at the thought of not sleeping. I would wait until I knew the last plane had gone over before I even went to the bedroom. I never had a panic attract before, I couldn’t breathe, my heart was beating so fast. I started to shout out “it is the noise, please stop the noise”.

When we are on an easterly wind, this is when the planes are bad for me. I would now watch the weather on the news. Please don’t be on an easterly wind tomorrow, I would pray, oh thank god no easterly wind.  “Now for the weekend’s weather, we have a strong wind coming from the east on Saturday” the weather presentation would say. Oh shit, oh shit. My panic was setting in, it was only Thursday but I knew the weekend would be none stop noise. That night I would lie in bed, with my eyes filling up with tears knowing the noise was coming. That humming sound you hear in the distances that turns into a thunder across your house. Soon that will be over me and it will not stop until Heathrow want it to stop.

Sounds bad, but unbelievably it is getting worse.

One month ago, we had 2 weeks or so of easterly winds. This meant I had planes over me from 6am to 11.30pm (most nights it would be in fact midnight or later, due to delays at Heathrow). I broke down. I started to hit things, I couldn’t control myself. I wanted to kill myself to get away from the noise. This noise had become too much for me to take. This noise was in the same place over and over again. As I lay down on my knees, with tears rushing down my face, my hands holding my head up from falling any lower, thinking of ways to end it, the only thing that stopped me was my dog had come up to me and pushed my hands away from my face with his nose. I looked at him, gripped his lead, run with him to the car and drove off to the countryside, just to get away from the noise.

Now when the noise is bad, I do that same drive and stay in the same place. That is my way for dealing with the noise. I am lucky, I have savings I can live off for 12 months or so. Other people in similar situations may not have the funds to live off and have to live with the noise, they can’t run away.  

Why am I writing about this? I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I just want to let me know the effects of these concentrated flight paths, a real-life situation. Not something the government has written down on paper. I am more than a number or a statistic.  I believe the government wants to increase the number of concentrated flight paths to increase the number of flights out of Heathrow. My story could become your story.  We should be protected from this noise; like the guy 10 years ago thought too.