SPECIAL REPORT / New rules on aviation noise that are due to take hold across the European Union in 2016 fall short of what is needed to protect people living near airports, the leader of a leading civil action groups says.
The EU’s new regulation calls for creating a “balanced approach” to noise reduction, by encouraging the use of quieter aircraft, improving land-use planning around airfields, imposing quieter airport ground operations and – in extreme cases – limiting overnight flights.
But those who are fighting to reduce the racket at one of the world’s busiest airports – London’s Heathrow – say the regulation offers little relief. The law lacks binding noise reduction rules, they say, a criticism echoed by some of the noise regulation’s early proponents in the European Parliament.
“Europe’s gone the wrong way on aircraft noise,” said John Stewart, chairman of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, or HACAN. “Until there is a definite target to be met, and a date by which that target has to be met, and legal limits, there really is very little incentive for airports or national governments to significantly reduce noise.”
“They [Brussels decision-makers] certainly allowed themselves to be unduly influenced by the consistent and constant pressure that there was by the aviation industry,” Stewart said in a telephone interview, though he conceded that “you can’t set a tough target over night”.
A bigger, quieter, Heathrow?
Located west of London, Heathrow is the world’s third busiest airport by passenger numbers, and one of Europe’s most important international hubs. Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd., an international consortium that runs the airport, wants it to become even bigger. But past growth plans have been grounded by civil and political opposition.
In response to pressure both at home and from the European Commission, Heathrow has adopted a “balanced approach” to reduce its environmental impact. The airport fines airlines using noisy planes; ‘names and shames’ carriers in a quarterly ranking of their noise impact; and sets some limits on nighttime flying. Its Noise Action Plan offers a home insulation scheme for eligible residents, and today’s Heathrow managers are credited with being more receptive to community concerns that in the past.
In May, Heathrow presented a revised plan for a long-sought third landing strip with a promise to gradually slash noise to the lowest levels in 40 years. The proposal is now being reviewed by the Airports Commission, a government body set up to address the needs of a growing industry, while also satisfying residents’ concerns about pollution and annoyance.
Supporters say the need for a new runway is vital to economic development, meeting 21st century demands for flying, and accommodating big aircraft. It would be the second runway capable of handling transcontinental jetliners built in the United Kingdom since the Second World War, according to Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, a regulatory body.
“We have worked closely with local residents, listened to their concerns and improved our plans,” John Holland-Kaye, the airport’s new chief executive, said in announcing the “improved expansion proposals” on May 13.
In another bid to clinch approval for a bigger Heathrow, two leading business groups, London First and Let Britain Fly, have called for creating an airport noise ombudsman with the power to arbitrate disputes. The proposal gained political muscle in June, when 34 members of the House of Commons, led by Labour MP David Lammy, backed the ombudsman for Heathrow.
If the ombudsman proposal takes hold, it would a notable exception in the EU’s 28 states – and possible model for others to follow. Only France has a similar intermediary for its biggest airfields – the Autorite de Controle des Nuisances Aeroportuaires.
“An independent ombudsman would make sure that all airlines fulfill their obligations. It would give local communities the assurance that someone is looking out for them and policy makers a source of objective information on which to make their decisions,” Baroness Jo Valentine, who heads London First, said in advocating an ombudsman last November in a bid to find a compromise in the Heathrow expansion debate.
Civic groups support noise czar
Hacan’s chairman concedes that both the airport and its supporters are becoming more sensitive to civic concerns. “There are people within Heathrow who are genuinely trying to find ways of reducing the impact of noise and reducing the impact of the aircraft,” said Stewart, who lives on the flightpath to Heathrow.
While supporting the move to create an independent noise czar, Stewart does not see it as the end game. He points to the lack of agreement on how many people are directly affected by Heathrow’s clamour. European Commission figures put the number at 725,000, while the airport uses the more modest estimate of 275,000.
He also fears that the ombudsman could provide cover for a third runway at Heathrow at a time when the Airports Commission is weighing the airport’s expansion plans ahead of a final recommendation that is expected next year.
“I am not under any allusions why they are listening to us more. It’s because they desperately want to get a third runway in place, and the last time round they tried, they antagonised everybody. This time, they’ve got to try to be seen as taking on board our concerns about noise,” Stewart said.
Hacan also insists on being an equal partner in any discussions about creating a noise czar. “We are not just coming on board as a passenger in the back seat, who puts up his hand every now and then because he wants to go to the toilet,” Stewart said.
Commenting on the new EU noise regulation, Robert O’Meara, director of media and communications at the Airports Council International - Europe, told EurActiv via e-mail:
“The core principle of the new regulation on the introduction of operating restrictions following the Balanced Approach procedure is to determine the noise objective that should be aimed for at local level - then to take a measure or a combination of measures to meet this objective (following a detailed and documented assessment). As a result, any measure will come from the noise objective, which is clearly in the interest of people living around airports.”
Baroness Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First, a business advocacy organisation, said in a statement of 7 November 2013:
“Limiting and cutting noise are challenges for any airport but the fact is that planes are getting quieter, major airlines like British Airways and Virgin are investing heavily in new fleets and airports are actively improving landing and take-off methods to reduce the noise impact,” she said.
“However, we are miles behind foreign rivals when it comes to communicating how we monitor noise levels and deal with any problems.
“An independent ombudsman would make sure that all airlines fulfil their obligations. It would give local communities the assurance that someone is looking out for them and policy makers a source of objective information on which to make their decisions.”
Colin Matthews, the then-chief executive of Heathrow, said on May 10, 2014 about the airport’s planned expansion:
“We are committed to treating those most affected by a third runway fairly. Since the previous runway plan was rejected in 2010 we have listened to ideas for how we could improve our proposals. People have told us that we should provide more generous compensation and go further in insulating homes against noise.
“We recognise that the expansion of Heathrow deserves an exceptional compensation scheme. That’s why we’re going further than statutory schemes or Government guidance. People will receive fair compensation in the event that Heathrow expansion goes ahead.”
John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive-designate of Heathrow, said in a statement on May 14, 2014:
“Expansion at Heathrow matters to the whole country. Only Heathrow will connect all of the UK to fast growing international markets. The plans we are submitting to the Airports Commission demonstrate major economic benefits from a third runway for the whole of the UK.
“Expansion at Heathrow has national and local support. We have worked closely with local residents, listened to their concerns and improved our plans. Our submission reduces the number of properties that would need to be purchased and the number of people affected by significant noise. We would establish a fund to enhance local amenities and compensate residents more generously than previous UK infrastructure projects,” he said.
“Our plans are deliverable. Heathrow offers the fastest, most cost effective and practical route to connect the whole of the UK to growth and we have proven our ability to deliver a world-class hub that will make Britain proud. Building on Heathrow’s existing strength will connect the whole of the UK to growth, keep Britain as an ambitious global nation and help the UK win the global race.”
The European Parliament and Council approved on April 16, 2014 new aviation noise rules (Regulation 598) that repeal a 2002 directive.
The new regulation, which is due to take effect on June 13, 2016, puts the EU in line with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s ‘balanced approach’ to noise.
This approach calls for cutting noise levels through the deployment of modern aircraft, land-use planning, quieter ground-control operations and restrictions on nighttime flying.
The EU’s regulation is seen as a significant step to reducing noise annoyances for people living and working around airports, with air traffic forecast to grow steadily in the decades ahead.
Critics, however, say lawmakers caved in to airlines and airport lobbyists by failing to set specific EU-wide noise-reduction targets and by depriving the European Commission the power to block airport expansions.
The law also exempts military aircraft.
- June 14-20: Farnborough International Airshow
- June 13, 2016: EU regulation on airport noise takes effect
- European Commission: ‘Better Airports’ Package (December 2011) [FR] [DE]
- Official Journal of the EU: Regulation 598/2014 (‘Noise-related operating restrictions at airports’)
- UK House of Commons: Motion on and independent airport ombudsman
- France: Autorite de Controle des Nuisances Aeroportuaires
- Civil Aviation Authority (UK): Managing Aviation Noise
Trade and industry
- Heathrow Airport: Noise Action Plan 2010-2015 (executive summary)
- Heathrow Airport: Noise Action Plan (dull document)
- Heathrow Airport: A New Approach (options for new runway, July 2013)
- Let Britain Fly: Homepage
- London First: Flight Path to Growth (November 2013)
- Airports Council International: Preliminary World Airport Traffic and Rankings (2014)