Sound Solutions to Aircraft Noise

By John Stewart

During my 20 years chairing HACAN, the organisation which gives a voice to residents under the Heathrow flight paths, I was always keen to look for solutions.
Noise was by some distance the biggest problem residents faced. In this blog I outline 7 key measures to deal with aircraft noise.

When aircraft noise disturbs, it can really disturb. The World Health Organisation has shown that only wind turbine noise annoys so many people at lower levels. Of course not everybody is disturbed by the noise. The statistics show that even at high noise volumes, a lot of people are not worried by the noise. This seems particularly to be the case when a person is born and brought under the flight path. I’ve spoken to people who have lived within couple of miles from Heathrow all their lives who tell me they are barely aware of the planes flying overhead.
So, how to we deal with noise?

  1. Research and development into quieter aircraft. Aircraft are a lot less noisy than they were 40 years ago. But in the coming years an annual reduction of only 0.1% is expected in noise from aircraft coming on-stream. The technology is not on the horizon for planes to get significantly quieter anytime soon. Meaningful resources need to be put into research and development into quieter planes by both the industry and governments. And this R&D should not take second place to the development of planes which emit less CO2.
  2. Build new airports well away from centres of population. It is interesting there are few noise complaints about the main airports in the Scandinavian countries. They are located well outside the towns and cities. It is not always possible to relocate existing airports but there are lessons here for the emerging economies as they build new airports. (Wherever an airport is built, people who lose their homes or land should be generously compensated).
  3. Encourage quieter alternatives to air travel where feasible. Aviation does long-distance journeys well but, if rail became more viable for shorter journeys, it opens up the possibility of managing or even reducing flight numbers over communities (which is what they want above all else).
  4. Share the noise around. Except for areas under the final approach to a runway, it is perfectly possible to use new technology to create multiple flight paths and to rotate them so as to give residents a break from the noise each day. In my experience, communities are much less interested in how many runways an airport has than in how many planes fly over their homes. These days it is the volume of aircraft passing overhead rather than the noise of each plane that is the biggest cause of disturbance. This sort of respite should also be a no-brainer for the industry. It allows it to expand while limiting flight numbers over most communities.
  5. Limit night flights. The European Union published a report which showed that, world-wide, most night flights were operated for the convenience of the airlines, rather than because they were essential (1). Night flying should become the exception.
  6. Provide generous compensation and mitigation. Communities under flight paths should expect money to pay for effective sound insulation measures. People who lose their homes or who see them devalued in price should be properly compensated.
  7. Ensure best operational procedures are followed. The steepness of the descent or ascent is important for communities as are measures such as the point aircraft coming into land lower their landing gear.

These measures would quite noticeably lower the impact of noise without harming an important industry.

(1). Assessing the Economic Cost of Night Flight Restrictions, European Commission 2005.