(in the presence – and for much of the time with the participation – of our MP, Mr Gove).
It was towards the end of the meeting that I really wanted to make these comments because only by then had I decided what I wanted to say, my comments being related mostly to the way the airport representatives had expressed themselves; what this revealed about their attitudes and intentions at the time; and the discrepancy between their way of seeing things and that of most, if not all, of the people attending. My comments (technically, questions were all that were allowed) can be made into questions just by adding ‘Did they not realise this?’ at the end of each comment; but there were so many people present I was unable to get a chance; and, as you will see, there wouldn’t have been time anyway!
- How those attending gradually learnt, at the meeting, to distrust the speakers:
- The meeting was about the flight trials which had given rise to very many complaints about noise. And, since the complaints about noise were often from people complaining they were suffering from noise when, before the trials, they had not, there was obviously a change of flight paths in connection with the trials. This change was admitted by the Heathrow representatives but they said it was not connected with, nor testing for the suitability of, surreptitious plans to change flight paths. You would have thought that they would have realised that they needed to give the meeting a simple, plausible explanation why testing the features of a new satellite airspace control system which did not involve flight path changes demanded, or would have benefit from, changes from established to new paths, thus affecting people previously unaffected. The fact that they gave no such convincing reasons does not mean there weren’t such reasons, but it is the sort of thing that makes juries mistrust a witness.
- The speakers said several times that the impression and subsequent alarm that flight paths were going to be changed was misplaced because the trials were not at all indicative of future flight-path intentions. The first speaker made this point and then added to it [all quotes are paraphrases]: ‘Although there are no plans to change flight paths, we might be able, given the control the new satellite system allows us, to vary the route of a flight so that it doesn’t always pass over the same territory – a little bit to one side on one day and a little bit to the other the next, allowing a bit of respite’. Did they not realise that, for the public, the words ‘there are no plans to…’ has echoes of hundreds of past occasions in public life when there have been ‘no plans to do…’, certainly no apparent plans, yet a decision is apparently suddenly made? It was to me disappointing that such a seemingly open and sincere a spokesman should have referred to ‘respite’ and how it might be enabled, which in itself indicated that Heathrow has had thoughts of, and conversations and meetings about, flight-path changes, while trying to protect the airport authority from protest on that aspect of the matter by hiding behind what, to residents, is an equivocation – namely that what has been going on regarding flight-path changes does not officially constitute the formal procedure the airport calls ‘planning’. We are beginning to mistrust the speakers.
- When the next speaker mentioned the matter he said: ‘It is not really about flight paths.Actually it is not about flight paths at all’. It was the fact that he himself noticed that he had uttered the word ‘really’ that made him add the next bit beginning ‘Actually’. To the audience, that Freudian slip indicated an unconscious conflict between what he knew and what he was meant to be confining his remarks to. Confirms that suspicion and mistrust is advisable. Not everyone would have been aware of the beginning of their scepticism but this was it for me.
- Later, when the continual reference to flight paths was getting more troublesome to the presentation team, the first speaker several times repeated the ‘respite’ prospect suggestion but, each time, this hinted-at extra benefit of the new system got more and more something we could expect as a spin off – almost, but not quite, to the point of a commitment, but to the point of its being a serious intention to examine the feasibility. Was he unaware that this undermined the audience’s trust in his earlier statement? that his willingness to keep going further, beyond his original official line, showed that, in response to the emphasis the audience had been placing on reducing or on spreading out the inconvenience of plane noise, he was quite prepared to pacify the restlessness and animosity by making utterances he hoped the audience would find acceptable and reassuring? that it was, in short, spin not policy?
- On a number of occasions, the main speaker tried to reassure the audience by saying that they should not worry about flight path changes since if ever they were proposed there would be public consultations; and that any following decision would be made by the government, not by Heathrow itself. Does he not realise that the public has little confidence in so-called consultations and that the audience would consider the reassurance laughable?
- The speakers were quite prepared to tell a number of people – including some airport workers and some ex-pilots, present only in their capacity as suffering residents – who, at the meeting, had asserted that some planes were flying lower than officially approved minimum heights, that they were ‘mistaken’. And even that the team could ‘assure’ the residents that they ‘had misinterpreted their experience’. Did they realise that, when such complaints began to be made repeatedly after the trials were started, Heathrow’s response, if it had been genuinely concerned about minimising avoidable noise, should have been to deploy observers to the relevant areas with adequate techniques for detecting aeroplane height to establish the facts?
- On a number of occasions when the audience seemed resistant to the responses of the speakers to its questions, the main speaker fell back on referring to the ‘fact that Heathrow was a leading airport in exploring this new technology’; and also ‘that a well-known gadfly who could hardly be called a friend of Heathrow had said complimentary things about their approach to the technology and to public communication about it’. Did he not realise that these references would be taken by the audience as irrelevant to what they made of their own experience and to how they decided what to think – not only of the noise but also of the conduct and utterances of the Heathrow representatives at the meeting?
The above paragraphs are an attempt to indicate the causes of the gradually increasing dissatisfaction of the audience. That there was such a dissatisfaction and that these paragraphs reveal the reasons, or some of them, is, of course, not knowledge but opinion. To me, the writer whose opinions these are, it would be gratifying if you forwarded this email to anyone else you think should read it. I have copied people who I saw were there on the night or I knew would be interested.
- The difference between ‘respite’ and ‘fairness’.
- Imagine a circle drawn around a map of the southeast with its centre at Heathrow and with radius, say, 25 miles. Let this wheel have as many spokes as possible, all starting at the dot which is Heathrow. These are all possible routes directly out of Heathrow and usable as flight paths. And the radius is meant to be the distance from Heathrow at which the height of a plane ceases to be a noise problem for the people on the ground (which will vary with the height above sea level from place to place). As planes get quieter, the radius can be reduced. Some way out from the airport the spokes are far enough apart for there to be space for branchings to right and left from each spoke. And, yet further out, branchings from branchings. This is a crude model, especially in not representing the vertical dimension, and in ignoring that runways don’t point in every conceivable direction as spokes do. It will serve my purpose.
- The concept of ‘respite’ as used by the speakers at the meeting was of a shift of route for a given flight in the morning as against the afternoon i.e. every half day (so as to mean the intolerable noise would last half a day every day, not all day every day); or possibly every other day (so as to mean the intolerable noise would affect people all day every other day instead of all day every day). There is a complete misunderstanding by the Heathrow people about what the complaint really is and of what the complainers would consider an equitable solution. And the complainers are partly to blame and ought to consolidate their position. The demand of most objectors is that, if air traffic noise is inevitable, it should be inflicted fairly. To the objectors this does not mean that they want to be pacified by Heathrow with piddling adjustments to routes still leaving wedges of land not involved at all. It means that the flight path routes should be arranged so that every spoke of the possible radiating routes should have, as near as dam it, an equal share of noise coming from aeroplanes. This means taking off in one direction and travelling some distance before turning to aim for your destination. They do that already but only because the runway direction is fixed; we just need to make the points of turning subject to the fair distribution of noise nuisance at ground level.
My general impression grew as the evening progressed. It was that the speakers revealed themselves as salesmen more than educators (as do many educators, too). Everyone makes utterance for a purpose, the purpose being to control the effect what they say (or write) has on the hearer (reader). This applies to conversation, lecturing, preaching, teaching, prosecuting, defending, converting, selling, writing novels, and everything else. But the mark of someone who wants you to change your mind for reasons, as opposed to someone who wants you to change your mind by indoctrination, is to what degree they concentrate on getting you to think about how to think, about anything and about the topic, rather than on what conclusion they think you should come to. The Heathrow team, by their reaction under pressure, behaved as indoctrinators (they may not be so in their manner of thinking, by intention, by temperament, by conviction, but only by lack of skill in showing who you are by the way you behave). So they appeared to us as salesmen whose slogan was ‘Always be sincere, even if you don’t mean it’. So important is sincerity that if you can fake it you are made. They put things to us in a form we might most readily find congenial, might accept; not in the form we might most easily understand, detect any hidden meaning in, detect the implications of, and quarrel with.
I do not say they were insincere. I got the impression they meant what they said. But the sincerity they portrayed was that of someone who really believes what he is saying i.e. he is himself taken in by his own propaganda. I wanted to say to them, especially to the main speaker (with apologies to Dick Emery): ‘I really liked you. But you were awful’.