Regulation of aircraft noise

Section 79(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, as amended, specifically exempts aircraft noise from the general noise nuisance controls which exist under that legislation. This is the case, irrespective of whether an airfield in question is small and unlicensed or a major UK airport.

Instead, aircraft are covered by the Civil Aviation Act 1982, as amended, which gives the Secretary of State for Transport wide powers to apply operational controls and restrictions. It should be noted that so long as the Rules of the Air Regulations 2007 (SI 2007/734), as amended, are being observed, aircraft are protected from action in respect of trespass or nuisance under the 1982 Act.

Departure noise limits have applied at Heathrow since 1959, at Gatwick since 1968 and at Stansted since 1993. The original limits were set in PNdB (Perceived noise decibel); this noise metric was superseded by dBA in 1993, but the noise limits remained effectively unchanged until a Government decision in December 2000 following a Review which was initiated in 1993. The reduced limits – 3dBA lower by day and 2dBA lower by night, and a shoulder period when the previous night limit applies – were implemented in February/March 2001.

Ambient noise levels around London airports can be found in the noise contour maps produced annually by the Government. 

Airspace design and Air Navigation Routes

UK airspace contains a network of corridors, or airways. These are usually ten miles wide and reach up to a height of 24,000 feet from a base of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. They mainly link busy areas of airspace known as terminal control areas, which are normally above major airports. At a lower level, control zones are established around each airport. The area above 24,500 feet is known as upper airspace. All of these airways are designated “controlled airspace”. Aircraft fly in them under the supervision of air traffic controllers and pilots are required to file a flight plan for each journey, containing details such as destination, route, timing and height.

Throughout Europe there is a move to restructure European airspace, add capacity, improve safety and increase the overall efficiency of the European air transport network through the Single European Sky (SES) project.

The UK and Ireland is planning to meet the SES requirements through the Future Airspace Strategy (FAS) which sets out a plan to modernise airspace by 2020.

The biggest changes in the UK are likely to be in the south east of England (whose airspace was designed over 40 years ago) where London’s five big airports and many smaller aerodromes create some of the world’s busiest and most complex skies.

There have been airspace trials at both Heathrow and Gatwick as part of the London Airspace Management Programme (LAMP). Gatwick was particularly controversial with local residents and the proposed changes around the airport were postponed. The first part of LAMP affecting London City Airport and the south coast was implemented in February 2016.

Campaigners and community groups concerned about the impacts of flight path changes have written to the Government calling for a review of airspace policy to be brought forward, as the current approach for making airspace changes is “not fit for purpose”, and demanding that a moratorium on flight path trials and airspace decisions is introduced until a new policy is put in place.

Noise impacts

The Airports Commission’s July 2013 aviation noise discussion paper attempted to give comparative figures for those affected by aviation noise as opposed to other transport noise. Based on 2006 figures it found estimated that 4.2 million people are exposed to road traffic noise of 65 decibels (dB) (LDEN) or more, and found that the corresponding figures for railways and aviation are 0.2m people and 0.07m people, respectively. The Commission categorised the effects of noise by considering them in three groups: health effects, amenity effects and productivity and learning effects:

  • In terms of health effects from aviation noise, the Commission stated that the link between noise and hypertension is ‘fairly well’ established and that the 2008 European HYENA study, which focused on a number of major European airports, found that night time aircraft noise was associated with increased hypertension and that aircraft noise events are associated with an elevation of blood pressure.
  • On amenity and quality of life the Commission stated that annoyance is the most commonly used outcome to evaluate the effect of noise on communities and cited ANASE and subsequent studies as showing that “the proportion of people being ‘highly annoyed’ at a particular exposure has increased”.
  • Finally, on productivity and learning effects the Commission stated that the European RANCH study found that road traffic students suffered impaired reading comprehension and recognition memory from aircraft noise, likely because of the ‘transient nature’ of aircraft movements, with short term peaks in noise affecting concentration and providing distraction.

In January 2016 the AEF published a report stating that in the UK, over one million people are exposed to aircraft noise above levels recommended for the protection of health, and that around 460 schools are exposed to aircraft noise at levels around Heathrow “that can impede memory and learning in children”, while around 600,000 people in the UK are exposed to average aircraft noise levels that risk regular sleep disturbance.

Further reading

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