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AEF Response: Night Noise Consultation

Below is the response submitted by AEF to the government’s night noise consultation. Our initial reaction which also outlines the contents of the consultation can be found here.

Q1a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposed environmental objective for the next regime?

We strongly disagree with the objective.

Q1b. Do you have any additional comments on our proposed environmental objective for the next regime?

The Department’s longstanding goal in respect of aircraft noise is to limit or reduce the number of people significantly affected. With certain caveats, including for example the need to pursue specific health-based objectives in relation to noise impacts, we support this.

Evidence shows that the impact of aircraft noise relates both to the intensity of each noise event and the frequency of occurrence. The night noise regime currently seeks to address both these elements, setting quota count limits to encourage the use of quieter aircraft, and setting absolute limits on the numbers of permitted movements.

The Government’s proposed environmental objective for the next regime, however, suggests that the only means of reducing or limiting the number of people significantly affected by aircraft noise is the promotion of quieter aircraft. This phrasing is too narrow. It cannot be assumed that encouraging quieter aircraft will, on its own, limit or reduce night noise impacts. Even with quieter aircraft an increase in the number of permitted movements could erode, or even exceed, the anticipated benefits.

While the Government is currently proposing to retain both the QC system and movement limits, we are concerned that the wording of the proposed objective increases the risk of a potential challenge to the night noise regime under the requirements of Regulation (EU) No 598/201431. The movements limit remains a valuable component of the regime for local communities but would appear extremely hard to justify under the proposed objective as stated. Dispensing with the movement limits would, however, be a retrograde step that would not protect communities adequately.

We strongly recommend, therefore, that the environmental objective be amended. Either a reference to a limit on aircraft movements needs to be added as an additional means of reducing or limiting noise impacts, or reference to the promotion of quieter aircraft should be removed, leaving open the question of what measures will be taken to limit noise impacts at night.

We are also concerned about reference in the objective to maintaining the existing benefits of night flights. It is unclear either why such an aim has relevance as part of an ‘environmental objective’ or on what basis the Government takes the view that the existing benefits should be maintained. No evidence is presented on what these supposed benefits are, or to whom (airlines, consumers, the general public, or nationally) except in the context of the impact assessment, and this makes clear that limitations in the available evidence base prevented quantification of these impacts in relation to the policy options.

In general it appears that the night noise regime is designed to impose limits that reflect what is happening anyway in terms of night noise. While this at least prevents increases in night noise it suggests that the policy is based on a concern to have the least possible impact on the aviation industry while appearing to provide noise protection for communities. Government policy should be re-orientated to reflect the evidence base on noise disturbance and provide meaningful protection to the public, including a stated objective to reduce noise at night to levels compatible with the protection of health.

Q2a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposal for the length of the next regime?

We neither agree nor disagree with the proposal.

Q2b. Do you have any additional comments on our proposal for the length of the regime?

While there are various aspects of the regulations that we disagree with, a period of five years provides a welcome level of certainty about the regulations for both communities and the industry. We would be opposed to any changes in the interim being made simply to allow for a growth in movements, for example through a planning approval, that would otherwise have been prevented by the regulations.

To the extent that new evidence emerges, however, that has relevance to the regulations, this should be taken into account in policy as soon as possible, and subsequently incorporated into the night noise regime. A major update to WHO’s community noise guidelines is expected this year for example. The Government should assess whether the night noise regulations are consistent with any new evidence and guidance what WHO publishes.

Q3a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposal to introduce a new QC/0.125 category for aircraft between 81 and 83.9 EPNdB?

We strongly agree.

Q3b. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposal for all aircraft quieter than this to remain QC/0 but count towards the airports movement limit?

We strongly agree. All aircraft should count towards the movement limit, but allowing a QC zero will help encourage investment in quieter aircraft.

Q3c. Do you have any additional comments on proposals for the Quota Count System?

We see no justification for the differences in the definition of the ‘night’ period that are illustrated in Figure 1. We would support extending the quota count period to cover the full eight hour night.

Evidence is presented in Annex D of a number of aircraft falling into a different QC band when their operational noise is assessed from the one predicted. For communities to have confidence in the regulations, the classifications should reflect the latest evidence and be assessed periodically. This may require flexibility in the methodology to allow aircraft to be classified by either their noise certificate or the measured noise. It is unclear however what impact the misclassification has had to date in terms of the number of movements by aircraft that have been wrongly classified and therefore how significant the problem is and how urgently it should be addressed.

Q4a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with the proposal for movement limits to remain unchanged at Heathrow?

We strongly disagree.

Q4b. Do you have any additional comments on our proposal for Heathrow’s movement limit?

We consider the movement limits for Heathrow to be too high. Retaining the movement limits at current levels means that there has been no change since 2006. As we set out, however, in our 2016 report Aircraft noise and public health: the evidence is loud and clear, during the intervening period evidence of the health damage resulting from aircraft noise at night has strengthened significantly and it is now clear that aircraft noise at night increases the risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and dementia, as well as other impacts linked to sleep disturbance. As long ago as 2009, WHO Europe argued that the evidence was sufficiently strong to recommend a lowering of the previous WHO threshold for night-time noise effects, arguing that in order to protect pubic health, night noise should not exceed 40 dB Lnight. Against this backdrop, the proposal to keep the night-time movement limit for Heathrow is unacceptable. At Heathrow, and indeed at all three regulated airports, the limits should be continuously reduced until WHO thresholds are achieved. Based on currently available technologies, this is likely to require a ban on night flights.

The justification for night flights at Heathrow is weak. Heathrow itself has indicated that it could deliver a night flight ban before the opening of a new runway as part of a deal including the delivery of airspace change and potentially a relaxation of the movement limits, suggesting that while night flights are certainly profitable for the airport they are not essential. The Airports Commission in fact noted, in support of its recommendation of a partial night flights ban alongside the third runway, that “A review of existing schedules at Heathrow suggests that there would be no insurmountable demand or supply-side barriers to providing alternative overnight services to arrive after 6:00am” and that the removal of core night flights would reduce the capacity of the airport by less than 1%. (Airports Commission Final Report, July 2015, sections 14.29-14.30).

The number of night flights at Heathrow should be progressively reduced, with an option to introduce a full night flight ban of 8 hours at all regulated airports presented for consultation when considering the next regime, currently anticipated in 2022.

Q5a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with the proposal for movement limits to remain unchanged at Gatwick?

We strongly disagree.

Q5b. Do you have any additional comments on our proposal for Gatwick’s movement limit?

Our comments above in relation to the movements limit at Heathrow – the growing evidence of health damage, the WHO advice on night noise, and the lack of evidence in terms of necessity – apply equally to Gatwick. While the number of people affected by night flights may be fewer around Gatwick, the fact that background noise levels are lower may well have an effect on the likelihood of awakening.

The number of night flights at Gatwick should be progressively reduced, with an option to introduce a full night flight ban of 8 hours at all regulated airports presented for consultation when considering the next regime, currently anticipated in 2022.

In particular we see no justification for retaining the existing movement limit for the winter period. The evidence presented for consultation shows that the number of movements has consistently been below the limit for the past ten years. It appears that for the last five years, only 50-60% of the available limit has been used, and this should be reflected in a more stringent limit for the next regime.

Q6a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with the proposal to raise Stansted’s movement limits to reflect the current number of exempt aircraft in operation?

We strongly disagree.

Q6b. Do you have any additional comments on our proposal for Stansted’s movement limit?

We note that the proposed adjustments are intended to maintain the same level of constraint on actual numbers of movements at Stansted, reflecting the approach at Heathrow and Gatwick. Our comments above about the movements limit in relation to Heathrow – the growing evidence of health damage, the WHO advice on night noise, and the lack of evidence in terms of necessity – apply equally to Stansted. As with Gatwick, while the number of people affected by night flights may be fewer around Stansted than near Heathrow, the fact that background noise levels are lower may well have an effect on the likelihood of awakening.

We are particularly concerned that part of the reasoning for not reducing the movements limit is the expectation that Stansted Airport may submit a planning application in the near future to increase its flight numbers. Our view is that aviation growth should be considered in the context of appropriate environmental protections rather than those protections being designed to have the least possible impact on growth. The case for protecting the public from night noise is unaffected by whether or not the airport may be seeking to increase then overall number of flights.

The number of night flights at Stansted should be progressively reduced, with an option to introduce a full night flight ban of 8 hours at all regulated airports presented for consultation when considering the next regime, currently anticipated in 2022.

Q7a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposals to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at Heathrow?

We somewhat agree.

Q7b. Do you have any additional comments on how you feel noise quotas can best be set in order to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at Heathrow?

We agree with the Government that the Quota Count system is not currently providing an effective incentive for the use of quieter aircraft and welcome the proposals both to reduce the quota counts to current levels initially and to implement further reductions in future years. We note however that the Quota Count usage has been falling at Heathrow even in the absence of an effective limit to drive it down, suggesting that other factors are driving an improvement in noise performance irrespective of the night noise regulations. The proposals appear designed to anticipate further reductions but not necessarily to drive them beyond what would have occurred anyway.

Q8a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposals to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at Gatwick?

We somewhat agree.

Q8b. Do you have any additional comments on how you feel noise quotas can best be set in order to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at Gatwick?

We welcome the proposal to reduce the QC limits at least to current levels. We are concerned however that the proposed limit for the winter period is significantly higher than the current level and argue that this should be corrected.

We also strongly support the proposal to reduce the quotas on an annual basis in future years, which has the potential to deliver real improvements in the noise environment locally.

Q9a. How strongly do you agree or disagree with our proposals to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at Stansted?

We somewhat agree.

Q9b. Do you have any additional comments on how you feel noise quotas can best be set in order to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at Stansted?

Retaining the limit at the current level will at least prevent further deterioration in the noise environment around Stansted. But we are concerned that the levels currently set are inadequate for protecting the surrounding communities.

In relation to the summer limit, the fact that the noise quota is currently being used in full should not preclude a further reduction to the limit in future. The purpose of environmental regulation should be to constrain unacceptable impacts. As we have argued above in response to questions about the movement limits there is now an increased body of evidence in relation to the harmful effects of night noise and Government action is needed to tackle the issue. We therefore support the proposal to reduce the limits on an annual basis.

Setting the winter limit at the current level despite the fact that usage has been well below this level every year for the past decade, meanwhile, has no justification.

Q10. Do you have any further views on our proposals, or their potential impact on the Government’s ability to fulfil the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty?

We note that the impact assessment anticipates that while no quantification of the impact of the proposals on the economic benefits of night flights has yet be calculated, it is hoped that such analysis will be developed alongside the final policy by way of “a flexible framework to monetise the economic benefits of night flights to airports, airlines, passengers and the public accounts”. While assessment of costs and benefits may be helpful, we note that estimates of the economic benefit of aviation is an area of great uncertainty, with figures often varying widely depending on the assumptions and methodology used and that it is probably always possible to generate numbers that suggest that any environmental restrictions on aviation are uneconomic. Our view is that the Government’s role should be to set policy in a way that appropriately protects the public from unacceptable noise impacts, particularly at night, and that airports should develop their businesses in a way that respects these limits.