This article is part of our special report Aviation.
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.