The aviation industry is in a period of intense scrutiny, with many big decisions due that are likely to affect the industry and the UK for many years to come.
Aside from the current expansion debate in the south east of England, there are smaller scale development plans at other airports around the UK; airspace change is underway and it brings with it many challenges. The increased adoption and trialling of Performance Based Navigation (PBN), along with consultations on the airspace change process and restrictions to night flights are all on the agenda.
Airports make a significant contribution to our society – affecting our economy, quality of life and wellbeing at a local and national level. Development is essential and will deliver efficiency and economic benefits that will be felt at local, national and international levels. However, airports have neighbours and these developments have impacts. Local residents experience most of the environmental impacts more acutely, and this is particularly the case with noise. Active and open debate is needed to determine where the balance lies between the positive and negative impacts.
NGOs, community groups and individuals are increasingly highlighting their concerns, which have been amplified through the focus on expansion and airspace trials in the south east. There are clearly issues that have not been heard or addressed after decades of focussing on noise reduction. Discussions are on-going at all levels. In April, Thomas Tugendhat MP called a parliamentary debate about the effect of aircraft noise on local communities. And last week there was a seminar at the House of Commons entitled ‘Aircraft noise and mental health’, chaired by Dr Tania Mathias (MP for Twickenham) and organised by the Aviation Environment Federation and campaign group HACAN. This gave experts a chance to talk and members of the public to be heard.
As independent airport noise management strategy consultants, we continue to follow the conversation with interest through meetings with industry, conferences, debates, community forums and social media to understand the viewpoint of all stakeholders and to work towards a solution.
Our work, research and extensive industry experience has led us to develop a framework for airport noise management and our aim is to enable airports to develop a ‘social license to operate’ within their local communities.
Beyond Noise Reduction
Airport noise management has evolved over recent decades from a legislation-driven compliance approach with noise monitoring and reporting as the focus, to one of greater industry collaboration focussed on reducing and mitigating noise. The result is a general reduction in overall noise levels, but there is a disparity between reported noise level reductions and the experience of local residents as the number of movements increases and community concern grows.
Research indicates that noise level (and factors that affect it) accounts for, at best, 30% of annoyance in response to aviation. So called ‘non-acoustic factors’, such as fairness and trust, have been found to drive a further 30-40% of annoyance (see diagram below).
It was clear from the parliamentary debate in April that there is something missing. If airports are to obtain a ‘social license to operate’ and develop sustainably, they and their stakeholders need go beyond noise reduction and openly, clearly and transparently engage with local communities.
A complete noise management strategy
Our framework goes beyond reducing and mitigating operational noise levels to engaging with and addressing the priorities of local communities. Along with the traditional reduction and mitigation approach to noise management strategy, it also considers non-acoustic factors:
– Noise reduction must be at the core of any strategy. This includes operational procedures, encouraging a quieter fleet and other measures that demonstrate the airport is doing what it can (however small the apparent benefit).
– Hand in hand with noise reduction, an airport should provide effective mitigation schemes such as provision of noise insulation. These should be fairly offered and address the key concerns of the community, whilst ensuring a reduction in noise levels inside homes.
– Trust should be built through open and honest communication, consultation, community forums and other methods of community engagement. At the recent parliamentary debate, MPs mentioned the reduction in trust during recent airspace trials across the UK. Information should be delivered clearly with mutual respect, empathy and awareness. This also requires the local community to understand the same with respect to the airport. This will take time.
– Common language and appropriate metrics should be used. The choice of metrics can often complicate any conversation about noise exposure. Local residents often express concern that averaging metrics such as the commonly used LAeq are not reflective of real-life experience. Metrics should be used that reflect people’s experience and promote common understanding.
– Effective noise complaints management should act as a direct link between airports and the community. Complaints can help to identify the priorities of the community which should then be used to help drive strategy development. Residents who report a complaint should know that their views are listened to, acknowledged and used to inform action – every complaint should be valuable.
– Independent audit and verification of information can help to build trust in the data; an airport cannot move forward until the data is trusted. Once trust has been established, the conversation can develop from questioning reliability and approach of an assessment to understanding results and addressing any concerns residents may have with these.
Tackling national issues
MPs raised issues at the parliamentary debate, which require policy action at national Government level to ensure a coordinated and consistent approach. However, we believe that airports, the industry and their communities should work together to lead the way in raising the profile of, and tackling, these issues.
– There has been a call by MPs to improve the Aviation Policy Framework, with clearer detail and a stricter definition of which communities should be considered as ‘significantly affected’. Thomas Tugendhat MP proposed increasing the area currently considered when assessing policy choices (currently the 57 dB LAeq,16hr summer noise contour). Airports should be proactive in using a variety of indicators that reflect latest understanding and guidance for describing impacts, including event based indicators. It is no longer acceptable to only consider the long term average noise contours.
– Latest evidence and ongoing research on the impacts of noise on health and wellbeing should be used to drive policy. The evidence is often complicated and sensationalised – community members are less sure about the context and detail. The potential impacts from environmental noise in general are well known, but the scientific evidence specific to aircraft noise is not entirely conclusive, though there is enough indication for a precautionary principle to apply. That doesn’t mean that all aircraft should stop flying; as health effects become more understood, mitigation needs to be adapted and applied appropriately. Monetisation of health impacts can be a useful technique to inform decision making and policy choices.
– Airspace Modernisation creates an opportunity to rethink current operations. PBN provides a unique opportunity to redesign routes and gives options for providing respite or avoiding overflying built-up areas at some airports. This was supported by the Department for Transport who recognises that there are situations where it is appropriate to investigate the option of sharing the noise and providing respite, despite current policy being to concentrate flight paths and reduce the total number of people exposed to noise.
– There are economic, commercial and competitive reasons for night flights; the benefits need to be balanced with the impacts on sleep disturbance felt by local communities. Operational measures and mitigation approaches need to be implemented to minimise these impacts as far as possible. Adequate sound insulation, runway operations, limits on numbers and type of aircraft, scheduling and airspace design can be used to help offset this. The role of effective land use planning to reduce those populated areas most significantly exposed must also be considered.
Striking a Balance
Airports can contribute both local and national benefits but there are social and environmental impacts. Local solutions are required that balance the impacts of noise with these benefits – there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Airports must engage with their local community to understand local concerns and prioritise action to reduce and mitigate noise.
A non-acoustic factors approach is not necessarily represented in standard financial models as ‘return on investment’. The aim is to increase long term understanding, trust and legitimacy of the airport in the community’s eyes.
In our work we bring airports, stakeholders and communities together to work collaboratively and respectfully, identifying concerns and priorities, and developing considered solutions that enable a more sustainable future.
Only through successful collaboration can all parties share the benefits that an airport can bring.