John Stewart blog: “Doing nothing about noise at Heathrow is not an option”
In a blog for HACAN, John Stewart considers the aircraft noise problem for people living at Brockley, in south east London, some 20 miles away from Heathrow. They suffer from planes over head every 2 minutes for much of each day, at around 4,500 feet. But they are not considered conventionally to have an aircraft noise problem. After speaking at a meeting in Brockley about the noise, and then visiting the headquarters of NATS to see their air traffic control systems, John was struck by the lights on the screens illustrating just how many planes affect people far from Heathrow. More than one million people live within 20 miles of Heathrow, along those approach paths. Around a third of those – the people living closer to Heathrow – get a half day’s break when the planes change runways at 3pm. The rest, like Brockley, get no such relief.. John says his visit to NATS “showed me that doing something is difficult” …. “doing nothing about noise at Heathrow is not an option”…. perhaps a solution would be “for planes to join the approach path much closer to Heathrow.” …”I didn’t ask NATS about the impact of a third runway at Heathrow. I didn’t really need to. If 480,000 flights a year severely restrict NATS’ room for manoeuvre, 740,000 would light up the air traffic controller’s screen with a brightness yet unseen.”
HACAN Blog by John Stewart
This is where Brockley is – the orange line shows the arrival flight path into Heathrow’s southern runway.
I’ve written about it before. But last week brought it home to me once again. Doing nothing about noise at Heathrow is not an option.
On Tuesday evening I chaired a meeting in Brockley, 20 miles from Heathrow in South East London. As I stood outside the church hall before the meeting started, I could hear a plane every two minutes or so, turning to join its final approach path to Heathrow.
I saw the same manoeuvre taking place on the screen last Friday when I visited the headquarters of NATS (National Air Traffic Control) in Swanwick and. NATS are impressive. They run an effective, efficient organisation that, it must be said, has improved significantly since they were privatized. But the question I was left pondering was whether they are being asked to do the impossible at Heathrow. They are required to mange safely and efficiently over 1300 planes landing and taking off each day but also are keen to assist residents under the flight paths.
Which brings me back to Brockley. As I sat with the air traffic controller watching his blank screen light up with planes approaching Heathrow, nowhere shone more brightly than the dazzling white line of aircraft on their final approach path, many having joined 20 miles from the airport. More than one million people live within those 20 miles. Around a third of those – the people living closer to the airport inWest London– get a half day’s break from the noise when the planes change runways at 3pm. The rest, like Brockley, get no relief.
And make no mistake the noise can be a real problem in those areas further from Heathrow. A report published by the respected acoustics form Bureau Veritas in 2007 found that in many of these areas “aircraft noise dominated the local environment.” http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/st0699.pdf http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/hacan.flight.paths.study.pdf (summary).
Doing nothing cannot be an option. But my visit to NATS showed me that doing something is difficult. Quieter planes on their own won’t do it because the number of aircraft is the big problem. Steeper descent approaches would help somewhat. Predicable respite periods can be managed before 6am when there are fewer planes but NATS would struggle to introduce them during the day when they need to land as many as 45 planes an hour.
The most useful solution for “the squeezed middle” – those living some distance from the airport under the final approach path – would be for planes to join the approach path much closer to Heathrow. The bright lights on the NATS’ screens – the planes – would be shared around more equitably. The former Concorde pilot Jock Lowe, the man fronting the Heathrow Hub bid for a third runway, believes it can be done. NATS are not ruling it out as more of the precision technology becomes available.
NATS are more hopeful of improving things more rapidly for residents under the take-off routes. There is more scope for giving respite. Aircraft also have an increasing ability to ascend ever more steeply.
I didn’t ask NATS about the impact of a third runway at Heathrow. I didn’t really need to. If 480,000 flights a year severely restrict NATS room for manoeuvre, 740,000 would light up the air traffic controller’s screen with a brightness yet unseen. Wouldn’t they?
This snap from Heathrow Webtrak http://webtrak.bksv.com/lhr shows a plane turning to join the flight path in the Brockley area. They are at around 4,500 feet altitude (some higher, some lower) at that stage.