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Understanding aircraft noise

The Issue

AEF receives more queries about aviation-related noise pollution than about any other issue. In 2016 we carried out a survey of our members, and noise emerged as the biggest single issue with 83% of respondents reporting noise problems during the day, and 73% reporting noise problems at night. People living under flightpaths from the larger airports, described “excessive”, “unbearable” and “intolerable” noise intrusion from large jets, but it was clear that noise from light aircraft (including small planes, helicopters and microlights) was also a major – and overlapping concern.

In May 2014 the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) wrote:

“More people in the UK are affected by aviation noise than any other country in Europe. With the Airports Commission currently considering proposals for increasing the UK’s aviation capacity, the CAA is clear that the industry will not be able to grow unless it first tackles its noise and other environmental impacts more effectively.”
Yet, as its recent consultation of airspace shows, the CAA has few powers to control noise and considers that its main statutory duty is to facilitate aviation growth.
Read our response to the CAA’s consultation here.

Respondents told us about significant adverse effects on the quality of life for themselves and their families, including sleep disturbance, inability to concentrate, and depression. Many had lost the enjoyment of their gardens. But respondents and members of the public told us about noise intrusion until well after 11pm, and often before 6am. And it’s not just people who live close to airports who are affected: we’ve been told about significant problems with frequent, intrusive noise impacts on people living 20 miles away from major airports.

There is a growing and already sufficient evidence base suggesting that aircraft noise has negative effects on human health. The impact is particularly pronounced with night noise from aircraft. A recent large scale study around Heathrow Airport found that people living under the flightpath were 10-20% more at risk to stroke and heart disease than those not living under the flight path.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Europe made recommendations in 2009 of the levels of noise above which health is affected. AEF advocates for using the WHO guidelines, and any future revisions, as a long-term target for UK aviation noise policy.

Since around 2014, AEF has noticed an increase in the number of queries from people who are either experiencing noise for the first time, or are experiencing an intensification of noise from aircraft operating from commercial airports. For example, we’ve received many queries about Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Birmingham and Newcastle as a result of airspace changes.

Helicopter noise can be especially annoying. In our 2016 members survey, 19% of respondents reported an issue with it.

Here is what the Civil Aviation Authority says about the issue:
“Helicopter noise is far more complex to measure and assess than fixed-wing aircraft noise. This is mainly because helicopters often don’t have to follow predefined routes, like fixed wing aircraft, and because helicopters may hover over a specific area for a while making the impact of the noise last for longer. Also, variations in the speed of the rotor blades means that the way noise travels also varies, and results in an asymmetric noise distribution, i.e. different noise levels from one side of a helicopter to the other.”
The CAA has some information on helicopter noise on its website particularly highlighting where helicopters are allowed to land.
The majority of helicopter queries the AEF receives are about helicopter noise in London. The CAA provides useful statistics on helicopter operations over London, which makes it possible to spot trends. You can access it here. You might find it helpful to reference the statistics if submitting comments or complaints.
To see a map of helicopter operations in London, click here. Note that helicopters with single engines are routed over the Thames and areas of low population density, while those with double engines may go off track.
If you would like to know a little bit more about helicopter noise in London, the London Assembly report produced in 2006 on helicopter noise is still useful.

Isn’t there a law against aircraft noise pollution?

Unfortunately, noise from civil aircraft is not a statutory nuisance in the UK, and neither the Environmental Protection Act (1990), nor the Noise Act 1996, offer any protection. Ordinarily, that would leave civil action in the county courts as an option, but the aviation industry enjoys a special exemption by way of the Civil Aviation Act (1982). The Act states the following:

s.76(1) No action shall lie in respect of trespass or in respect of nuisance, by reason only of the flight of an aircraft over any property at a height above the ground in which, having regard to wind, weather and all circumstances of the case is reasonable, or the ordinary incidents of such flight, so long as the provisions of any Air Navigation Order and of any orders under section 62 above have been duly complied with.

 s. 77(2) No action shall lie in respect of nuisance by reason only of the noise and vibration caused by aircraft on an Aerodrome to which this subsection applies by virtue of an Air Navigation Order, as long as the provisions of any such Order are duly complied with.

Air Navigation Orders set out the Rules of the Air

The rules apply to all aircraft, but they are mostly relevant to General Aviation.
Pilots must not fly aircraft (1) over the congested areas of cities, towns or settlements, or over an open-air assembly of persons at a height less than 300m (1000ft) above the highest obstacle within a radius of 600m from the aircraft, or (2) closer than 500ft away from persons, vehicles, vessels or structures, except when taking off or landing, or by permission of the competent authority.

What about my Human Rights?

AEF is often asked whether the noise problem can be challenged under the Human Rights Convention. The case of Hatton and Others v. the United Kingdom (application number 36022/97) is particularly relevant. It was heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2003.

The applicants complained of night noise from Heathrow resulting from new aircraft operations, and said that their rights under Article 8 (A8) of the Human Rights Convention (HRC) had been violated. A8 states:

  1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
  2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The court accepted that the economic interests of the airline operators and the economic interests of the country necessarily “impinged” on the local community, and their A8 rights. However, the case hinged on how far those rights could be violated, and whether “a fair balance was struck between the competing interests of the individuals affected but the night noise and the community as a whole”. The court decided (12 judges to 5) that a fair balance had indeed been struck. It held that sleep disturbance didn’t amount to an intrusion into private life sufficiently to give it significant weight. It also noted that the number of people affected was very small – and argued that they were free to relocate without suffering financial loss.

However, the opinion of the five dissenting judges is interesting, and potentially useful. They stressed that the judgment had given precedence to economic considerations over a “basic human need”, regardless of the small number of people affected:

When it comes to such intimate personal situations as the constant disturbance of sleep at night by aircraft noise there is a positive duty on the State to ensure as far as possible that ordinary people enjoy normal sleeping conditions.

They also pointed out that sleep deprivation can be used as a form of torture, but only to emphasise the debilitating effects of sleep disturbance (they didn’t seek to invoke Article 3 of the Convention).

Can I get compensation?

The answer is that it is possible to be compensated for noise nuisance caused by aircraft – but only in very limited circumstances.

The Land Compensation Act (LCA) (1973) can be a route to securing compensation for people whose houses are devalued by the construction of a new runway. The homeowner must provide evidence that, in comparison with similar, but unaffected properties, their home has lost value as a result of the development.

One problem is that the Act only applies to noise impacts from new airport infrastructure, such as a new runway; it does not apply to airspace changes, new flight paths that fly from and to existing runways. In addition, the noise thresholds are currently set very high.

Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC) is arguing for an amendment of the LCA. Read about this here.

Meanwhile, current government policy on compensation for aviation-related noise nuisance is also limited to areas experiencing very high noise levels. The Aviation Policy Framework, produced in 2013 stipulates that airports are expected to:

  • assist in the costs of moving for households exposed to levels of noise of 69 dBLAeq,16h or more;
  • provide acoustic insulation or alternative mitigation measures to noise sensitive buildings, such as schools and hospitals, exposed to levels of noise of 63 dBLAeq,16h or more; and
  • provide financial assistance towards noise insulation to residential properties which experience an increase in noise of 3dB or more as a result of a development which leaves them exposed to levels of noise of 63 dBLAeq, 16h or more.

However, in its airspace and noise consultation carried out in February 2017, the Department for Transport (DfT) proposed a number of changes to compensation and insulation policy. For example, rather than limit assistance towards the costs of noise insulation to homes affected by development, the DfT expressed a wish to see that provision extended to homes affected by airspace changes. The DfT also proposed to remove the requirement that in order to trigger financial assistance towards insulation in for those exposed to noise of 63dB LAeq there must be a 3dB change. In addition, they proposed that airspace change sponsors (such as airports) should give consideration to whether compensation might form part of an appropriate package of measures to address the noise impacts of a change.

AEF broadly supported those proposals, but we were disappointed that compensation would be left largely to the discretion of airports or sponsors. We also felt that noise thresholds remained too high, and unless they are located in the immediate vicinity of the airport, few households would be likely to qualify. In addition, increased frequency of noise events from aircraft appear to be out of scope for compensation. You can read our full response to the consultation here.

Having looked at responses to the consultation, the DfT confirmed in October 2017 that all the proposed changes to compensation and insulation policy will be made. Encouragingly, the DfT has committed to look again at the compensation issue through the Aviation Strategy, which it proposes to publish at the end of 2018. To read the DfT’s comments on compensation, click here.

So, what are my options?

Making a complaint

If people affected by noise issues don’t engage with airports, then airports might conclude there’s no problem.
But avoid overkill. If airports receive multiple complaints from a single person, they might reasonably assume that the problem isn’t widespread.
If you are affected by an aircraft noise issue, it’s likely that your neighbours are too. They might want to raise the issue themselves. Help them out by sharing the airport’s contact details.

Complaining to the airport

If you have an aviation noise problem, then the airport can’t act unless it knows. So, as a first step, consider making a complaint (if you know where the aircraft are flying to and from). The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aviation regulation body in the UK, has a contact list for the main airports; you’ll need to look other airports up online. There are also some useful flight tracker apps that can help identify aircraft and their routes, for example Flightradar24.

If you’re affected by noise from light aircraft, including helicopters, try an internet search for airfields near to you, or use a flight tracker. You can try contacting the airfield to see if there are any local noise abatement procedures and, if the problem is persistent, to see if alternative practices can be considered. Where the airfield cannot be identified, if you can get the registration number of the aircraft, you can find the contact details of the owner here, and politely ask him or her if they could avoid overflying your area. If the pilot is in breach of the Rules of the Air, you can complain to the CAA (see below).

For military aircraft, you can raise the issue with the MOD on 0845 600 7580. There’s a useful article on low-flying military aircraft you can read on the GOV.UK website. Possibly, the helicopter noise is coming from aircraft operated by the National Police Air Service or by your local Air Ambulance Service (a coverage map can be found here). Try contacting them to enquire.

When raising a noise issue with any aircraft operator, stress how the noise impacts you, or where relevant, your family. For example, if your sleep is affected, explain this in detail, including any side-effects, such as poor concentration, or depression. If you have had to visit your GP because your health is suffering, say so.

Complaining to the CAA

Unfortunately, respondents to our 2016 Members Survey told us that some airports can be evasive, and even obstructive.

If your attempts to engage with the airport have been unsuccessful, you could try raising a noise issue with the CAA via its complaints procedure. However, the CAA’s complaints procedure isn’t particularly straightforward, and it’s not clear what it does with the complaints it receives. While it states that it is required by government to provide a “focal point” for aviation-related complaints and queries it will only take complaints “into account” in certain circumstances (though it does apparently log complaints received).

Clicking here will take you to the relevant page, which includes a link to the online complaints form: Form FCS 1521. The form contains further information about the CAA’s complaints procedure (click on the information icon towards the top right-hand side of the form). If you’re complaining about a use of airspace, you could try completing and sending the form, but, as you’ll see, the CAA could refer it on to a third party – including the airport. Or, it could do nothing. All very unsatisfactory, and something that AEF has raised with the CAA.

I’ve complained to the airport, and to the CAA, but have got nowhere. What now?

There are still a number of things you can do, and the following list is intended to give you an idea of the actions you can take.

  • Write to your MP. You can find your MP here. Tell them about the effects of the noise on you and (if relevant) your family. Ask them why aviation is given special treatment, and express your concern that the industry appears to get all the benefits, while the community suffers harm.

Perhaps your MP would be interested in sponsoring a Private Members Bill to make aircraft noise a statutory nuisance.

The Bill was originally proposed by Tania Mathias, MP for Twickenham. It didn’t make it to a second reading, and debate, in the House of Common, because Dr Mathias lost her seat in the 2017 General Election. You can read about it here
  • Join an existing community or aviation-related campaigning group. For a list of aviation-related campaigning groups, have a look at the one compiled by AirportWatch. If there’s no group listed for your area, consider forming one yourself. Alternatively, try contacting a local branch of an environmental group, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, or the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
  • Find your Airport Consultative Committee representative. Under Section 35 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 (revised 2002), 51 designated aerodromes are required to consult on the airport’s operations with interested parties on an equal and fair basis. Interested parties include businesses operating from the airport, local authorities and community groups. In response, many airports, including those not formally “designated” by the Act, have set up an Airport Consultative Committee (ACC) as a forum for raising airport-related issues. If your local authority, or local community group, is not on the ACC, you might want to approach them to ask them to gain a seat on the ACC to represent community interests. If you form a community group, you could approach the airport directly to ask for a seat on the ACC. If there is no ACC at your airport, consider asking for one to be formed.
  • Is the airport operating within planning restrictions? Check with your local planning authority (LPA) to see whether there are any planning restrictions on the airport or airfield; these are set out as part of the planning process approving the airport’s construction or expansion. Planning restrictions can restrict aircraft operations, such as the number of flights permitted, and the hours of operation, including night flights. To find your LPA, click here. Additionally, the Secretary of State for Transport has discretionary powers to regulate airports to control noise and vibration. However, to date, these powers have only been used to designate Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted to provide noise insulation schemes, departure noise limits and night-time noise restrictions.
  • Find out what the airport is doing about the issue. Currently, UK airports are reviewing and revising their Noise Action Plans (NAPs). NAPs must be renewed every five years, with the next round of plans due to be published next year. As part of the process, airports must produce a noise map using data from 2016. Click here for Defra guidance on NAPs. The noise map provides the basis for the NAP, which must identify problems and situations that must be improved. The aim of the NAP is to support the government’s aim to limit and (where possible) reduce the number of people significantly affected by aircraft noise. Consider having a look at the guidance to see where pressure might be applied.
  • Join the AEF. We are the only UK NGO campaigning exclusively on the environmental impacts of the aviation industry. We work towards change by liaising directly with national decision and policy-makers, European and global policy-makers, the public, media, and the aviation industry. As a federation, we ensure that our work-programme reflects the interests and concerns of our members. To read about membership benefits, and to join us, click here.

Make your voice heard

…because the government is beginning to listen, especially to concerns about noise impacts from airspace changes. Encouragingly, the Department for Transport has committed to exploring whether a new approach to reducing noise annoyance is needed, which will be published in the Aviation Strategy in 2018.
The DfT has also said that it will introduce new metrics to assess noise impacts and their health effects, including a new measure of frequency.
In addition, the DfT will setting up an Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise (ICCAN) as a new non-departmental public body. While ICCAN will only action in an advisory capacity, and won’t have a complaints function, its creation will be cautiously welcomed by the AEF.

To read AEF’s guide on understanding airspace policy, click here.