Introduction: Flightpaths can ‘kill’ when indiscriminately designed, super-concentrating noise in narrow corridors, (noise ghettoes). We must learn from experience and understand that as there is no panacea, there must be some flexibility and innovation to ensure that ‘fair flightpaths’ are the right of all overflown. Concerns, issues and opportunities are raised about aspects of airspace change policies, including transition and governance arrangements. Commitment to fairness, and importance of public health is flagged, as well as consultation. It is re-emphasised that breaks from noise are not an issue rather the potential super-concentration of some flight paths on small, potentially vulnerable minorities. Recommendations are made for improvement, including ‘Building Back Better’ but with so far overlooked measures, including an essential Charter clarifying and improving the rights of the overflown, and the noise vulnerable.
Flight path change is eventually coming as UK airspace will be redrawn. But with such change comes an unprecedented responsibility to get it right – lives will literally depend on it. Worryingly, we appear to have not yet addressed some critical elements. We must.
The easy bit will be liberating many under existing flight paths for some, or all of the day – the good news story- but the hardest will be designing the paths for the newly or significantly newly overflown and ensuring that the process and outcome is balanced and scrupulously fair. Unfortunately, the omens from the US and Europe are not entirely good news on this, and so we must have the humility and honesty to learn from these when shaping the final policy, and ‘signing off’ on peoples’ lives, as #everylifematters.
What is a fair flight path?
There is no definition of a fair flight path. But if you ask people, they generally agree that there should be an even distribution of any burden (noise/traffic/benefit) across a community, and that the design process should treat everyone equally without favouritism or discrimination. Recognising this to be a seminal issue John Stewart (Hacan Chair) has, to his credit, attempted to promote debate on this since the House of Commons seminar on Mental Health and Aviation Noise in 2015. But there’s still a great deal to do.
So why should there be problems?
The aviation industry generally doesn’t like so much variation as it looks to rationalise the number and distribution of flight paths (the business case). It favours more concentrated flight paths and precision navigated aircraft and this means that there is potentially an inherent tension with the term ‘fair’. Sadly, there is also a risk of groupthink setting in crushing any voice of reason or justice. This is potentially denying the possibility of ‘Fair Flightpaths’ for a small, significant, minority. Yet our society and community leaders preach that ‘every life matters’, so actions, not words are needed.
Also, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is also understood to still propose affecting fewest people in redesigning airspace. While this may seem reasonable, it can be easily (and ruthlessly) over exploited, by over-compressing noise footprints as further noise is squeezed into already ‘overdone’ concentrated flightpaths.
The pressure to do this is great, to support the narrative for change at any cost.
Flightpath change inevitably involves the redistribution of noise and there is a lot of ‘horse trading’ (the ‘politics of noise’) which happens behind the scenes. As the outcome may affect people’s lives, for better or worse, it can set up tensions among stakeholder groups, and shut down essential discussion. This has currently happened. It’s blatantly wrong.
What are the potential problems with envisaged flightpath changes?
- ‘Over cooking’ is the biggest issue. Examples are rife in the USA, where they have effectively paused new concentrated – Precision Based Navigation (PBN) – flight path use. The approach is in disarray with mass legal action triggered by victim communities.
And in Europe there has also been trouble with many deployments, including at Frankfurt Airport, where affected residents have been protesting every week for the last 10 years. This was after flight paths had been changed to accommodate a third and then fourth runway. The impact was much greater than anything expected or prepared for, and it was the significant new, or additional new noise, residents were expected to bear that was the sticking point. While it must be said that the airport has since made some improvements to their operations and introduced measures such as respite – breaks from noise for the overflown – it appears this still fails to address the primary issue of over-concentration in parts of the network.
2) Since concentration, plus respite, is also being promoted for the UK skies, this naturally raises genuine concerns. Here it is the degree of concentration that is the issue rather than the respite. This needs should be addressed and not misdirected.
3) Hidden in the statistics: significant noise, and mental illness, is yet another significant issue. With ‘fair flight paths’ one must understand actual noise levels, but averaging, the preferred approach, is too imprecise to establish what is actually going on, allowing a raft of aircraft flying at much higher altitudes, but in the same ‘noise envelope’ to dilute and obscure the effect that the lower ‘big hitters’ are really having. Sections of a community are therefore at a real risk of being hidden in the statistics and left to ghettoise.
4) The envisaged approach – simply reducing the number of overflights and providing a break from noise for everyone – will not work in all cases, as a significant minority are likely to bear a disproportionate noise burden as it is redistributed. This needs meaningful, transparent analysis, and a fair resolution.
5) The proposed approach also fails to address the ‘noise vulnerable’ – a neighbour, for example, suffers from a mental health condition which causes them to smash their head against walls when overwhelmed by external noise seeping into their home. What chance do they have under, or adjacent to, concentrated flight paths? And you have my story from earlier blogs and public platforms, also on behalf of the wider affected community, which I have steadfastly campaigned for. But it seems that a hidden disability minority is being consigned to the trash. Yet we boast about a Fair Society.
6) People don’t hear averages, rather a string of unsolicited interruptions, which may disturb their ability to sleep or relax; and while the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests noise levels no greater than 30db for bedrooms, aviation noise typically seeps in at much greater levels under concentrated flight paths. This potentially poses a significant health risk.
7) As the CAA has a pivotal role in shaping and ultimately approving new fight paths, it needs to be done, and needs to be seen to be done, in a thorough, independent, and scrupulously fair manner. It cannot be rushed, it must be right, and the trust of those potentially negatively affected, secured (the litmus test).
But there appears to be genuine unease in some quarters, in that the proposed criteria for assessing and accepting the ‘Masterplan’ may be deficient – lacking, some say, the policy framework and evidence base to support it, in crucial areas.
If we just take one issue, as an example, the US experience appears not to have been examined or lessons learned. Here, though, amongst other things the business benefits for using the approach were called into question. This would seem very important when the downside of such a miscalculation can truly affect lives in a way no other industry can. And while incidentally this may marginally reduce the CO2 emissions per flight (a good thing), these additional benefits may be lost through further aviation growth and associated travel to and from airports, and overall negative health impacts.
Also, putting to one side assumptions about continuing aviation growth or any perceived shortcomings in the Airports National Policy Statement, the evidence base on health and especially mental health, and being able to make objective judgements about noise impacts, are of further concern. It does not appear, for example, to recognise noise impacts below 51 dB when assessing the effects of aviation noise. Yet this is thought to be pertinent, and contrasts with the opinions of international acoustic experts, and previous acknowledgements from the International Civil Aviation Organisation and Public Health England.
If this is correct, and unless thoroughly addressed, it may be perceived that it has been unable to discern the real impact of significant change on the physical and mental health of the overflown, when eventually making critical, potentially life-changing judgements.
I am reminded at this point that I praised the CAA for promoting best practice standards in 2016 for disabled people (paying passengers) – including those with mental health conditions – so that they were treated better. While this was commendable, it appears that this very same group has now been overlooked when considering the impact of overflying them in a predominantly concentrated fashion, and at such a crucial time.
Preparing to taxi
I have always acknowledged the inviolable need for breaks from noise for all communities. But concentration, current or future, and over- concentration is potentially a killer if noise ghettoes are allowed to develop. Yet this will discriminate disproportionately against less well represented sections of society, effectively placing a ‘knee across the throats of decent people’, because one can. This is quite abhorrent and completely at odds with the central premise of ‘fair’.
While, it is true, that there is a lot aircraft, and operators, can potentially do to try and reduce noise – continuous descent and departures, curved approaches, alternating runways, and airspace to provide breaks – there is a limit. And this is why truly ‘fair flightpaths’, for all communities, and all parts of all communities, is so important.
It is also important to note that flightpaths are not all the same, and impacts (noise doses) will vary for those overflown. Loud noise, proximity to one’s home, number of overflights in 24 hours, time span overflown, number of days overflown per year, proximity to an airport (flights tend to be lower) can have a significant impact on mental and physical health and need to be fairly balanced when designing new flight paths and considering redress.
Also, please note, that just because some overflown do not complain it doesn’t mean that that they have accepted or adjusted to the imposition of new noise. It just means in many cases that they are too weary and unwell to continually complain.
Charter for the overflown and authentic ‘fair flightpaths.
In reframing the post Covid -19 era, the relationship between aviation and key stakeholders, and involuntary customers – the overflown – must be treated much better. In fact, John Stewart (Hacan Chair) has recently blogged (April 2020) that trust needs to be built up with the industry and suggested several improvement measures. Yes, this is a helpful start but we need to go further.
This ‘call’ chimes with the ‘Build Back Better’ ambitions of the industry which provides an opportunity for traction to drive real, sustainable improvements. This should not overlook the issues raised here and the potentially precarious and powerless position of some involuntary consumers, which sits uneasily with our society’s cornerstone values of fairness and justice.
The aviation industry has already spontaneously indicated its intention to introduce international standards to treat post pandemic travel and drive up standards around public health. In doing so there is also the opportunity to embrace pre-existing international standards, such as those of WHO, as it relates to noise – even if this is a ‘stretch’ target.
There can be no place for unfair flightpaths, and these must be subject to challenge, ultimately to an independent authority, with the presumption in the first instance being, that the flight path design should be modified. This may especially arise where multiple concentrated low level flight paths create a ‘hot spot’ and significantly disproportionate distribution of noise and overflying. ‘Fewest people’ should not be an absolute test, rather ‘least harm’ should be applied to those caught in the crosshairs – some flexibility, common sense and humanity is required. This is not asking very much.
And while robust, trustworthy, governance and control systems must therefore be centre stage in managing the transition, influential stakeholders, politicians of all types and allegiances, and good people – wherever their community- need to step in and insist on adjustment, on behalf of vulnerable ‘others’, if necessary.
If we’re truly sincere about ‘fair flightpaths’, mental health and invisible disabilities, then we need to improve emerging policy/thinking and future practice.
So, the time is right – in fact it’s essential – to recognise the rights of the overflown formally in a Charter. Afterall this is probably the single most important stakeholder group of all, as ultimately it will be they who ‘pay the price’ as others benefit.
Authentic ‘Fair flightpaths’, not slogans, should therefore really matter, just as every life should really matter. And if we are serious about inclusion and fairness, then this should be the driving force at the heart of the Charter and the drive to ‘Build Back Better’. Please help.
Footnote: I have campaigned on homelessness, social justice, mental health, environmental issues, and aviation noise for years. I have tried to raise awareness about MH and aviation noise, and awareness and support for people caught in all affected communities. Mental illness can affect anyone and be truly wicked – anyone who has read my blogs will know this. My prognosis isn’t good, hence my public campaign. I am now aware that I have effectively been ‘sent to Coventry’ by those who don’t want to hear the public health warning. These include key community influencers, Yet I was acceptable enough to raise the debate nationally 5 years + ago in the House of Commons and on national radio, etc etc. so that everyone (including their communities) could benefit!. While I am genuinely sorry to have lost some of my support in the past year or so, as noise redistribution has become more political and territorial (not pleasant), I have struggled with my own health and presence on twitter. Yet I have never been territorial, fighting from one platform for all sections, of all communities. I pray that we have learned our lessons from our past mistakes and ensure that, one way or another, we are fair to everyone in delivering authentic ‘fair flightpaths’. Lives really do depend on it, and significant mental illness is something that society really could, and should, do much more about. Please remember what I have tried to do, if only momentarily, or to help ensure that #everylifematters. Thank you truly and God Bless you all for helping a mouse to occasionally roar. Please Help! #nogoingback #DOA #everylifematters