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A new policy statement on airspace changes

15th December, 2017

In October, the Government released a deluge of aviation publications for consultation. Media interest focused on the impact of new passenger forecasts on the relative benefits of Heathrow expansion compared with Gatwick, and the evidence base for the National Policy Statement. However, the published documents also included a new statement of policy on the noise impacts of airspace change, set out by way of the Government’s response to its earlier consultation on this subject, and new guidance to the CAA on air navigation.

In our response to the consultation last May we argued that the driving force behind the push for airspace ‘modernisation’ was based primarily on increasing airspace capacity to keep up with anticipated future demand growth. Since this growth was likely to result in more noise, we stressed that while many of the proposals were welcome, they would not close the regulatory gap around how a flight path is used, so that increases in traffic volume or greater concentration may still result in increased noise.

In this article we take a look at the main proposals that the Government intends to pursue and whether they are likely to be effective in addressing the environmental challenges associated with a growth in air traffic. While the latest DfT forecasts show less growth in aircraft movements than previously expected, it is predicted that there will be a near 50% increase in flights by 2050 compared to today bringing the total to 3 million flights per annum.

After reviewing almost 800 responses, the Government has announced that it intends to implement the following proposals:

  • A new Secretary of State Call In Power on airspace changes of national importance that meet one of three prescribed criteria: that the proposed change is of ‘strategic national importance’; that it could have a significant impact on economic growth in the UK; or that it “could both lead to a change in noise distribution resulting in a 10,000 net increase in the number of people subjected to a noise level of at least 54 dB LAeq 16hr and have an identified adverse impact on health and quality of life”. Despite many comments from communities, the Government has not revised the environmental criterion which we believe sets the threshold too high and will exclude changes that impact rural communities.
  • Changes to the operational usage of airspace should be subject to a suitable policy on transparency, engagement and consideration of mitigations. The Government has included this requirement in the guidance it has given to the CAA, including an expectation that airports will engage with communities. We welcome recognition of this issue, as many noise complaints result from changes to operations on existing flightpaths but which to not qualify as formal airspace changes.
  • Changes to aviation noise compensation policy. The Government intends to pursue its proposals to bring compensation in line with that applicable to changes in noise from infrastructure. While AEF supports this, we remain disappointed that lower thresholds for compensation have not been considered as only those living in high exposure contours will be eligible.
  • The creation of an Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise (ICCAN) by Spring 2018. The Government hopes that this proposal will be seen asan important step to rebuild the trust lost in industry by communities”. The commission will operate as a new non-departmental public body of the DfT (rather than as an independent body within the CAA as originally proposed). It will have a largely advisory function, although a review of ICCAN within two years of its creation will include further consideration of statutory powers. These could potentially include a role as a statutory consultee in the airspace change process and fining powers for noise breaches. Interestingly, the Government expects ICCAN, as a priority, to review existing mechanisms for enforcement and complaint resolution.
  • A new requirement for options analysis in airspace change. This will include a quantitative comparison of the likely noise and other impacts of available alternative airspace options, while, it is hoped, enabling communities to understand the different impacts associated with options such as the use of single or multiple routes and have a say in which is selected.
  • New metrics and appraisal guidance to assess noise impacts. The Government has stated that its noise objectives are to: limit and, where possible, reduce the number of people in the UK significantly affected by the adverse impacts from aircraft noise; ensure that the aviation sector makes a significant and cost-effective contribution towards reducing global emissions; and minimise local air quality emissions and in particular ensure that the UK complies with its international obligations on air quality.

Pursuit of these aims will be supported by a risk-based approach, consistent with guidance from the World Health Organisation, where anticipated noise impacts will be mapped above 51 Leq for daytime and 45 Leq at night, supplemented by additional metrics to show the frequency of noise events. AEF supports the new approach to metrics and official recognition that significant annoyance occurs below the former 57Leq threshold. But we continue to ask Government to adopt more precise, health-based noise objectives.

How will the new policy be implemented?

The changes to airspace change policy have been reflected in revised Air Navigation Directions and Air Navigation Guidance to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to take effect from 1 January 2018. In the meantime, the Government expects “that airspace change sponsors will seek to follow the new guidance immediately and apply it retrospectively”. 

One of AEF’s more fundamental criticisms of the consultation was the ongoing lack of a meaningful noise target. Although the response does not seek to introduce a target, it acknowledges that the parallel consultation on an aviation strategy should explore how sustainable growth should be defined in terms of noise, whether it’s possible to design targets for noise reduction and how to do more to strengthen the enforcement regime. AEF has already reacted to the call for evidence on the aviation strategy, calling it a classic case of the cart before the horse, not least because it asks questions about noise and the possibility of setting targets that may require revisions to the Government’s proposals.

While many of the new proposals are welcome, as is CAA’s strengthening of community involvement in the airspace change process, they need to be accompanied by an unambiguous objective to reduce aviation noise to a level that protects public health, and by a clearer policy approach on how is noise is to be balanced against other criteria such as anticipated economic benefits or fuel savings.