Skip to content

Understanding aircraft noise

Last updated: June 2020

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, the CAA has few powers to control noise and considers that its main statutory duty is to facilitate aviation growth.

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. Aircraft noise intrusion, we learned, occurs 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.

People up to 20 miles away from major airports have reported frequent and intrusive noise impacts.

Many had lost enjoyment of their gardens as a result of aircraft noise

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 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.

In October 2018, The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Europe revised its recommendations on community noise exposure. To avoid health impacts, outdoor noise levels should not exceed 55Leq during daytime, or 40Leq at night, the WHO now states. 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.

The number of people impacted by aircraft noise, either for the first time or because the noise has intensified, has increased.

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 (definition below) 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.

Noise from civil aircraft is not a statutory nuisance in the UK.

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 by 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).

There is a positive duty on the State to ensure as far as possible that ordinary people enjoy normal sleeping conditions.


Can I get compensation?

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.

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

Following a consultation on airspace and noise in 2017, the Department for Transport (DfT) introduced a number of changes to compensation and insulation policy. Rather than limit assistance towards the costs of noise insulation to homes affected by development, the DfT extended that provision to homes affected by airspace changes. The DfT also removed the requirement that, in order to trigger financial assistance towards insulation for those exposed to noise of 63dB LAeq, there must be a minimum 3dB change. In addition, airspace change sponsors (such as airports) are now encouraged to consider whether compensation might form part of a package of appropriate measures to address significant noise impacts of a proposed airspace change. Finally, where homeowners want to remain in their homes following a change, the airport should offer to pay for full insulation for those homes within the 69dB LAeq contour. (To access the policy document, click here). 

AEF broadly supported these policy changes, but we were disappointed that compensation would be left largely to the discretion of airports or sponsors. In addition, increased frequency of noise events from aircraft appear to be out of scope for compensation unless one of the above thresholds is met. 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 for financial assistance with noise insulation. 

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 DfT’s Aviation Strategy Green Paper (2018), revisited compensation and insulation policy

Compensation

Rather than proposing additional national policy requirements on compensation, the Green Paper suggested a local planning authority role. Planning approvals for increases in passenger numbers or flights would routinely set noise caps as planning conditions. Exploring possible additions and alternatives to existing compliance measures, the Paper suggested that, where planning caps were breached, airports could be required to pay compensation to communities – effectively paying for additional growth. 

AEF supported the introduction of noise caps within the local authority planning system. However, we felt that the measure relies too heavily on local authorities getting the levels right. We were also concerned about the suggested compliance mechanisms. While airports would be able to exceed cap limits (in return for compensation), communities would be unable to ask for cap limits to be lowered where they are too high. The policy proposals, we felt, were skewed in favour of airports.

Insulation

The proposals were:
1. to extend the noise insulation policy threshold beyond the current 63dB LAeq 16hr contour to 60dB LAeq 16hr 
2. to require all airports to review the effectiveness of existing schemes, including the effectiveness of insulation and whether other factors need to be considered, and also whether levels of contributions are affecting take-up 
3. for the Government or ICCAN [Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise] to issue new guidance to airports on best practice for noise insulation schemes, to improve consistency 
4. for airspace changes which lead to significantly increased overflight, to set a new minimum threshold of an increase of 3dB LAeq, which leaves a household in the 54dB LAeq 16hr contour or above as a new eligibility criterion for assistance with noise insulation.

AEF said that the threshold is still too high and insufficiently evidence-based. The DfT should propose a night-time trigger for insulation to reduce sleep disturbance. A 3dB change is equivalent to a doubling of aircraft movements, which is high as the test for significant increase. The overall insulation threshold should be lowered to 54 LAeq in line with recent WHO recommendations. Reviews should be coordinated by ICCAN to ensure consistency in approach.

AEF’s full response to the Aviation Strategy Green paper is here. Please note that the DfT has not yet published its response to the Green Paper, and there is currently no overarching Aviation Strategy in place. 


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 and ExPlane.

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.

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.

You can make a complaint to the airport or try raising a noise issue with the CAA if this is unsuccessful

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. Consider asking them to sponsor a Private Members Bill to make aviation noise a statutory nuisance, amending the Environmental Protection Act (1990). A suggested amendment to the EPA (sponsored by former MP Tania Mathies) can be found 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 EarthGreenpeace, or the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
  • Find your Airport Consultative Committee (ACC) 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. Click here for government ACC guidelines. 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 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. 
  • Is the airport planning to expand? Have a look at AEF’s guide to aviation planning here.
  • Find out what the airport has been doing about noise impacts. Recently, UK airports reviewed and revised their Noise Action Plans (NAPs). The purpose 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. Is your local airport doing what it said it would? Click here for AEF’s NAP map. Click here for Defra guidance on NAPs.  
  • 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 policymakers, European and global policymakers, 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

AEF has been working to raise the visibility of those impacted by aviation noise. Since 2018, we have collecting short films and blogs contributed by our members and members of the public from across the UK. Whether you are impacted by commercial aircraft or general aviation noise, if you would like to submit a contribution, please email info@aef.org.uk for details.

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