Narrow, concentrated flight paths coming our way…

A new type of flight is being introduced at airports across the world. They are called Performance Based Navigation (PBN) routes. Over the next ten years the EU will require PBN routes to be introduced at all airports. ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Authority) is also doing a lot of work on PBN. As these new flight paths come in they will be noticed by local communities. They will be narrower and more concentrated than many people experience at present.

The change is being driven by new technology. Air traffic controllers are moving from a ground-based system to satellite technology to guide planes in and out of airports. The new technology will enable aircraft to be guided on very precise routes. This will make them more efficient, save fuel and airline costs, reduce CO2 per plane and improve the resilience of airports.

But these narrow, precise, concentrated routes will have an impact on local communities. People living close to airports will experience less change since the flight paths over them are already very narrow as all the planes are lined up with the runway. However, there will be a big impact for people living a little further away from the airport where at the moment planes can be quite dispersed.

Spread of narrow routes

The real problem is that the same communities will get all the planes overhead all day along (and maybe during the night as well). That would make life unbearable for these people. When this has happened in many of the American cities, there has been much protest. Some citizens groups, often backed by the city authorities, have issued law-suits against the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) who are responsible for the flight paths. At London City Airport in England complaints rose five-fold after precise, concentrated routes were introduced in 2016. The airport is now looking again at these flight paths.

A way of overcoming this problem is to introduce multiple precise routes so that each route is only used for part of the day in order to give each community a break from the noise. This does of course mean more people in total are overflown but it also ensures that no community gets all the planes. These multiple routes are easier to introduce at airports which have more than one runway and, of course, for a lot of people living under the final approach path to a one runway airport where they cannot be introduced.

After many years of pressure from local communities, Heathrow has made a public commitment to give all communities a break from the noise. All UK airports are aiming to have the new flight paths in place from 2024.