Aircraft noise is a significant political issue and remains the key environmental concern for many of our members. Noise can impact children’s learning, interrupt conversations, disturb sleep, and cause serious long term health problems. The European Environment Agency considers environmental noise, of which aircraft noise is a significant part, to be more damaging to health than passive smoking.
Because aviation is exempt from noise nuisance claims, there is very little legal protection for people affected by aircraft noise even if an increase in airport activity or a change in flight paths causes a significant noise increase. Yet the UK Government has always avoided setting maximum noise exposure thresholds for airports, instead having adopted policy simply to ‘limit and where possible reduce’ aviation noise impacts.
AEF has been working on this issue for many years and we have seen some progress. We said, for example, that the Government’s official threshold for the onset of significant annoyance arising from aircraft noise (57 dB Leq) was out of step with reality. In 2007 a Government study confirmed this feedback from our members, indicating that the threshold needed lowering, though this has yet to be put into practice in policy. We also said that the Government’s system of noise averaging was masking the steady increase in the number of aircraft movements causing disturbance, and in 2013 the Airports Commission concluded that a range of metrics should be used to assess noise rather than relying on ‘Leq’ alone.
AEF continues to campaign for the introduction of quantitative noise limits and targets at a policy level including delivery of WHO recommendations on noise; the lowering of the official threshold for noise annoyance; the use of range of noise metrics; the introduction of tougher noise standards for manufacturers; and more effective noise controls imposed through the planning system.
See 2016 AEF report ‘Aircraft Noise and Public Health: the Evidence is Loud and Clear‘
Aircraft noise facts
- More people are affected by noise at Heathrow than at any other major European airport. More than three times as many people fall within Heathrow’s 55 Lden contour than at Frankfurt, which has the second highest number of people exposed to noise at this level.
- Disturbance from aircraft noise can be greater in areas with low background noise than in urban areas. A 2014 trial of new flight paths at Gatwick led to the creation of five new anti-noise groups, and a huge wave of complaints from surrounding villages.
- Night noise from aircraft increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and dementia. The World Health Organisation has recommended since 1999 that night noise should not exceed 45 dB Leq. In 2009 WHO Europe updated this guidance to recommend a maximum level of just 40 dB Leq at night. Noise levels around major airports far exceed these recommended levels and, in the UK, night noise is not even recorded down to 40 dB Leq.
- Recent evidence shows that the onset of significant annoyance is now much lower than it was thought in the past.
- Maps showing noise ‘contours’ shrinking over time can be misleading. Aircraft have become quieter over time, but average noise levels mask the impact of the increase in the number of individual noise events. The number of noise events is an important factor in disturbance, and so a reduction in noise contours may not be matched by any reduction in annoyance if combined with an increase in aircraft numbers.
- Government policy is that aircraft should fly in a way that minimises the number of people significantly affected by aircraft noise. The trend towards more concentrated flight paths, being pursued as part of a Europe-wide reform of air traffic management, appears to support this, since fewer people are overflown than when flight paths are dispersed. Given the importance of the number of noise events as a trigger for annoyance, however, an increase in concentration may increase significant annoyance for those still under the flight path.