Government policy on aviation noise is ineffective

The government’s aircraft noise policies are ineffective. Despite policy aspirations to reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by aircraft noise, the only thing which has reduced aviation noise is COVID restrictions. Pre-2020, airports were in an expansion frenzy, fuelled by the government policy to “Make Best Use” of runways. As restrictions ease, there is no clarity on policy direction, which is irresponsible in light of Climate Change imperatives, let alone the impacts of noise on health. All we have is bluster about new technology solving all the problems (see our Jet Zero pages).

The principles behind aircraft noise policies haven’t changed for many years. But workable policy has to be explained, legislated, guided, monitored and enforced. A means of regulation has to be put in place and kept under review. None of that has happened. As a result, there is confusion – and airport planning applications waste time, energy and money while planners and lawyers argue about how to interpret “policy”.

Environmental noise

The EU’s Environmental Noise Directive requires governments “to avoid, prevent or reduce on a prioritised basis the harmful effects, including annoyance, due to exposure to environmental noise”. This has been transposed into English law. The World Health Organisation issued updated Environmental Health Guidelines in 2018. Yet UK policy just aims “to limit, and where possible, reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by aircraft noise”, without defining what limit or where possible or significantly affected mean in practice.

Limit implies quantified limits on the noise emissions and impacts caused by the aviation industry. These should be set airport-by-airport by an independent and qualified expert, using a range of metrics. Noise impacts cannot be characterised by just one number. They should be monitored, enforced and periodically updated.

Where possible is meaningless without defining in whose judgement, at what cost, and how quickly? Yet no body is responsible and accountable for identifying opportunities to reduce noise and ensuring they’re acted on. There is no fully independent, empowered policy delivery mechanism. The Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise described this as a “fog of accountability” – which is no doubt why the government disbanded it. There is now navel-gazing about who will do what, instead of collaborative work to deliver on the aspiration.

Significantly affected needs to be clarified. Is someone living in a tranquil rural area more significantly affected by aircraft noise than someone living in a busy city? Is noise at night or early in the morning more significant than noise during the day? How significant does noise impact have to be to damage health and well-being? What about compensation when noise effects change – either over time or due to development?

Sharing the benefits of growth

The Aviation Policy Framework says: “the Government therefore expects that future growth in aviation should ensure that benefits are shared between the aviation industry and local communities. This means that the industry must continue to reduce and mitigate noise as airport capacity grows”.

This is meaningless if the expectation is not monitored or delivered – and at present there is no effective process for this to happen, and no assessment of achievement against the expectation. The DfT does not even have a way to define current aviation noise impacts, let alone monitor changes.

The requirement that industry must continue to reduce and mitigate noise as airport capacity grows is routinely ignored – both by the industry and by the government. Policy must inform planning decisions where growth is proposed, but it doesn’t. Luton Airport aggressively doubled its capacity between 2013 and 2019, breaching its noise planning conditions: no enforcement action was taken. Luton Airport allowed Wizz Air to introduce large A321neo aircraft which save the airline money in fuel costs, and fly more passengers per aircraft. Yet they are not perceptibly quieter on arrival or on departure. So capacity has grown without the required mitigation.

Measuring progress

Noise contour areas are used as an official measure of the noise impact of airports. But they are inadequate. If all flights at Luton Airport reduced their noise by 3dB but at the same time the number of flights doubled, the noise contour area would remain the same. To people on the ground, each flight would sound slightly less noisy, but a doubling of flights would be a very significant and noticeable change. How will the DfT measure progress with noise mitigation at Luton? We don’t know, and apparently neither do they.

Airspace modernisation

The way aircraft use the UK’s airspace is based on designs from the 1950s and is well out of date – as well as being grossly inefficient. Anyone can see that holding stacks are a waste of time and fuel. And if planes are forced to fly for extended periods at low altitudes because airspace is too crowded for them to climb, they make low-level noise and emissions for far longer, and suffer increased wear and tear. Yet the DfT and the CAA have failed to address these fundamental problems.

Latest attempts to redesign airspace went on hold during COVID partly because the industry wanted to conserve money. That would have been the ideal time to work out how to use airspace more efficiently – yet there was no progress. The industry is now playing catch-up, but with the likelihood of dozens of consultations on revised designs for aircraft tracks, there is no policy to ensure these deliver a reduction in noise as capacity grows, nor that they deliver essential aviation carbon emissions reduction as well.

So what next?

We and many others think substantial further work is required to address these policy issues. This work should be carried out transparently, and with more accountability and community stakeholder involvement than in the past. We do not think it is adequate for industry and government to assume continuous aviation growth can be taken for granted, and certainly not without addressing sustainability and the environmental noise impacts.