Protecting the noise vulnerable: measures to mitigate low level concentrated aircraft noise

A blog outlining a series of practical actions that can be taken to protect people whose mental health may suffer from concentrated flight paths even when they are accompanied by welcome periods of relief (respite).

Concentrated flight paths are touted as the future of airspace transformation and the pinnacle of best practice; as precision-based navigation systems direct aircraft down the same channels time, and time again, with predictable results. Whilst operational efficiency and profitability increases (there are fewer delays and fuel savings accrue) the impact on the overflown, and their health, especially at lower altitudes, increases significantly, although this is something that is insufficiently acknowledged as the noise about growth and economic benefit tends to drown it out.

Whilst there may be undoubted benefits, John Stewart (Hacan) has long been a vocal, and leading, opponent to what he has described as the risk of ‘noise ghettoes’, which concentrated flight paths can produce (as has happened most noticeably in many North American cities). He has therefore argued passionately that concentrated flight paths must be used in conjunction with adequate breaks from noise (popularly termed respite) but also potentially with mitigation, where necessary, with, for example, the deployment of adequate noise insulation for qualifying overflown properties.

At present concentrated flight paths and respite are being touted effectively as preferred, if not best practice. However, as noise is compressed and concentrated into narrower tracts it is true that fewer are affected, but those that are may suffer disproportionately. Yet it seems this is regarded as more or less acceptable. Call me ‘old fashioned’ or out-of-kilter with the popular sound bites, but is it any wonder that many are now perceiving a general hardening of the nation’s heart, whether it’s to do with refugees, the street homeless, the dispossessed, the mentally ill –  the list goes on – as humanity and decency is damaged in the process.

What appears to be particularly overlooked is the impact of concentrated flight paths, at low level, on health, especially mental health. The over simplified(?) lesson that is drawn from the much- touted empirical study of concentrated flight paths at Frankfurt Airport is that predictably concentrated noise causes some newly overflown to become depressed. Therefore respite – a predictable break from noise – may be deployed as the answer. But this can’t be the complete answer for those with pre-existing severe depression as they will most likely tip over into crisis, or worse, at the very prospect of concentrated flight paths, long before respite can offer any benefit. And all concentrated flight paths aren’t equal. So additional, case based or spot treatment – mitigation – should be deployed as well. This becomes super critical in cases where individuals may have other conditions already known to respond adversely to aviation noise, such as severe hypertension. Importantly, amelioration should not be exclusively linked to a new third, but significant flight path changes generally, which will inevitably occur by default.

Also, one community should not prevail over another because aviation noise has apparently been ‘consulted away’. One should realise that one can’t consult noise away. In practice it is often merely bartered or ‘fudged away’, and eventually deposited on another, usually democratically weaker, community. If so let’s level up by at least providing adequate protection to the most vulnerable.

And it doesn’t have to be reduced to a case of ‘winners and losers’, and all the solutions do not have to be cheques written by the aviation industry – there is a collective stakeholder, multi-agency responsibility at play, which arguably needs to become more transparent, explicit and accountable. What most depressed, noise-affected people want, in my experience, is the ability to switch off unwanted noise and to feel safe in their homes. Yet it appears that the national government, local government, health agencies, aviation, and acoustics and associated industries continue, for one reason or another, to avoid their responsibilities by failing to join up all the dots. After all noise can propagate an inertia, a tendency to turn the other way. Any of us are capable of this. Whether we do so, is a matter of personal choice.

So, accepting that airspace change and expansion will occur in one form or another is there anything we can do, that isn’t being done, that may make a significant difference to the especially noise vulnerable?  As a continuing survivor of hard core, crippling depression, hand on heart, I can say there is:

  • provision of ‘spot-treatments’. These are aimed at implementing practical measures to prevent aviation noise-triggered relapses. The important thing to note here are that these are not generic solutions that might be deployed as part of a wider programme, but rather they are targeted, practical measures that can improve an individual’s living environment where there is a known high pre-existing health risk. While these may not number many, health authorities, among others, will know all about these, and the adverse mental health impact of concentrated new noise;


  • expertise from the acoustic industry needs to be identified and channelled specifically to undertake acoustic assessments, identifying the headroom for improvement, with the areas for improvement, and to conduct a post-implementation review confirming that the improvements have been delivered. Delivery may also beneficially be formally accredited, which will provide additional confidence in the work undertaken and facilitate noise vulnerable households ‘moving on’ in due course;


  • grant provision may assist much of this specialised work as well as a zero vat regime, but a blended funding mix may be considered for more marginal cases, drawing upon pooled low or nil interest local authority/centrally pooled loans which may be accessed, for example, by a relatively small numbers of affected householders. Additionally an element of personal funding may also be included. Where charged to the property it may be paid on the death of the loanee, or sale of the asset;


  • the supply and choice of products and services available needs to improve particularly for the significantly affected noise vulnerable overflown – it is not all about acoustic glazing or insulation products (although this may be the core offer) but may include acoustic shutters, acoustic baffles for a variety of domestic applications including air vents, and extractor vents, and sound absorbing and reflecting panels. The list is potentially more extensive;


  • the provision of framework agreements enabled, for example, by local authority (or another suitable agency) pooling potential demand which will then enable a broader base of citizens to access significantly discounted prices that they would otherwise be unavailable to them;


  • the purchase and repurposing of suitable noise vulnerable affected properties may be facilitated by a coordinated approach between local authorities and housing associations. A limited quota system could be utilised to enable better use of the existing stock, marginally increasing it through adaptation, and providing accommodation for waiting list candidates and helping to move on former occupiers;


  • retro-treated show homes demonstrating successful, accredited noise mitigation solutions can provide positive examples and real encouragement that noise can be turned down and effectively switched off in certain cases.

Now experience tells me that some (many?) readers may be thinking what an absolute load of twaddle! If so, and if any had the will, I would, if I could, invite them to take a journey with me through a secure mental health unit, to talk to any available ‘functioning’ patient, as well as staff, and families impacted by crippling severe depression.

But what most people fail to appreciate is that severe depression can trigger suicidal, delusional and/or distressing psychotic/agitated behaviour which goes way beyond the common portrayal of what the disorder is all about. It also may not effectively respond to treatment as successive episodes become more distressing and debilitating. Is it any wonder then that if one claws their way back to reality and ‘controlled’ health that they, and their families, have a right to expect that they shouldn’t be tipped into the abyss by the inevitable impact of inadequately mitigated  low level concentrated flight paths? What makes this unforgiveable is that this is both predictable and avoidable. Please act before it is too late.

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