The Aviation Dinosaur – will it evolve?

Like all industries completely reliant on oil, aviation is facing eventual extinction or at the very least, major re-modelling. The question at the moment is which type of dinosaur is the aviation industry? Most schoolboys around the age of eight are able to tell you this will determine how soon it starts dying off, and what exactly it dies of. Is the aviation family of dinosaur like the giant lumbering brachiosaurus, a herbivore minding its own business consuming two hundred kilos of plants per day in packs on the plains? Or is it more like the infamous T Rex, threatening other species with its insatiable appetite for individual prominence in a dog eat dog scenario leaving toxic destruction in its wake?

The evidence so far indicates the aviation industry is very probably carnivorous. Yet in terms of the future it has in Britain, the Government jockey like amateurs in understanding the fossil record and how the aviation dinosaur offspring aka airlines may be encouraged to evolve into proper birds. Perhaps this is largely because the Government’s approach to the bare bones of evidence as well as the text books policymakers are reading from to put the skeletons together all rely on perceptions largely framed by the prevailing attitudes of the late 1970’s, the ramifications of which skew the real picture and real public costs today.

Out of date noise metric

Take the current UK Government’s approach to aircraft noise, perhaps best shown by the treatment of residents living under flight paths but outside the 57leq contour- a map contour line indicating the loudness from a single fixed point of all the planes when averaged over sixteen hours –  they ignore them. Successive Governments have ignored complaints outside this contour since 1982 when the 57leq metric was first devised. Only noise above the 57leq contour is considered loud enough to be of ‘significant community disturbance’. Many policymakers equate noise with ‘modernity’ such as Kent County Council among others[i]. For many still believe aeroplanes are essential to business even to the point they have become emblematic of political mantras such as ‘Good for the Economy’, a phrase that largely passed into common parlance during the free-market deregulation of the 1980’s.

Airport noise action plans[ii] give the appearance of change. Newer aircraft engines are slightly quieter than that manufactured in 1982, but this has led to airports reducing the size of the 57leq contour area and presenting this as evidence that the numbers of people affected by noise has reduced. Airports are in charge of public liaison and deal with complaints about their own planes. Complaints from residents about aircraft noise go no further than being logged by number annually. Perhaps this simple fact alone is the reason why many residents under flight paths instead complain to MPs, newspapers and local or regional Councils, which in turn allows airports to claim that noise complaints are falling because of their actions on noise; are they? No one has yet attempted to quantify the total numbers of complaints received elsewhere, or as yet conventionally accounted for the astronomic increase in Community Initiatives and direct action groups focussed around aviation and related pollution issues.

The UK’s approach to aircraft noise is no less than bureaucratic stonewalling.

Unchecked expansion

Most people are able to hear. Along with this ability comes at least some rudimentary understanding that any noise can be noisier the more times it’s repeated. Most people hear aircraft noise in the South East. The number of planes in the sky since the 1970’s has more than doubled for Heathrow[iii], and all the airports in the south east combined now fly over one million aeroplane movements per year above our heads, green land almost completely obliterated by the red trails of plane flights shown on airport maps every day. The interval between planes is ever reducing, sometimes as little as sixty seconds separating flights. The glidepaths for approach are ever extending – aircraft currently converge anything up to twenty five miles away from the airport itself. Some children grow up never knowing silence. The advent of new NATS route changes[iv] will amount to even higher frequencies, even longer streams of convergence as a result of ‘points merge’, the funnelling in of aircraft on to so called ‘aeroplane motorways’. Points merge will allow airports to expand even further. Thus the 57leq metric –an average, an underestimate of loudness with the impression of a hum – bears absolutely no relation to the noise from jet engines that people experience on the ground. Yet this metric justifies imposed aviation expansion on residents without anything close to democratic oversight.

Bias towards Airlines

The continuity of this out of date 57leq metric was interrupted only briefly by Labour, who commissioned the ANASE project initiated by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2001 to inform the preparation of the Air Transport White Paper, then expected to be published in late 2002. The project’s findings were subsequently discredited and further research on aircraft noise dropped. Yet an updated ANASE study has recently been published that has confirmed and extended many of the original findings, and shows that the noise from aeroplanes significantly affects four times the number of residents than the Government claims.  The 57leq metric, once policy to recognise noisy areas, has become intractable bias in favour of the airport’s moneymaking business plans. It is embedded within all Governmental aviation policy and is even being used in the Airport Commission’s decision between Heathrow vs Gatwick expansion supposedly in a bid to plan for the future. Exactly who the beneficiaries of such a future will be is open to debate, not least because aircraft noise, along with the particulates and toxic substances released by burning jet fuel, pose major risks to Public Health.

Aircraft emissions are largely masked by that from cars. Research is scant with regard to relative proportions, but poor air quality has now been unequivocally linked to 1 in 8 premature deaths worldwide by the World Health Organisation[v]. London currently holds the title of most polluted city in Europe[vi]. Both noise and air pollution seriously affect productivity and the development and SES potential of our children.

Blinkered economic framework

Despite this, the Airport Commission’s decision in terms of the UK’s long term economic framework will give no consideration to a ‘no runway’ option for the south east as called for by environmental NGO’s in their open letter to the Airport’s Commission of 31st October 2013. The letter also pointed out the incompatibility of aeroplane expansion with carbon dioxide reduction targets and the need to help curb climate change. According to a recent study by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), the Airports Commission’s direct comparative approach between Heathrow and Gatwick reads ‘as if they were civil servants back in the glorious days of the British Airports Authority’ when of course airports were public services and taxpayers developed infrastructure in the national interest. In today’s Britain, the reality is that the relationship between airports and the public has changed.

Since the British Airports Authority’s incorporation under Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and subsequent privatisation, the airports have been in competition with each other. So far only vague bureaucratic phrases gently waft in the air about who exactly will pay the billions of pounds for the many tonnes of concrete and infrastructure changes necessary to build one or other of the runways near London. Yet costs are critical; either in terms of tax payer’s money or customer contribution towards the private company’s infrastructure – they determine profits, as does competition in and of itself. The apparent reluctance of the Manchester Airport Group to help fund Boris Island following their post-expansion profit downturn being a case in point. And on the ground any new runway would intensify existing pressures between Boroughs, between residents, and between political parties over the already urgent need for adequate housing and the difficulties in balancing this with other needs such as that for green spaces: the green belt, wildlife, the prevention of pollution in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and so on. In the South East there is only so much land, so much sky, so much health. Lack of a ‘no runway’ option in the Airports Commission remit simply fails to recognise the existence of any natural limits.

By contrast, most regional airports have seen decline in passenger numbers. Yet passenger numbers in general continue to rise. While the aviation industry can continue to take the more affluent members of the society abroad, there is no incentive to curb expansion projects. The aviation industry serves only customers and shareholders without further ethical remit.

Come friendly planes

In section 4 of the Impact Assessment of Night Flying restrictions, the Government makes it clear that their noise and number quotas have no impact[vii].  The ‘costs’ referred to are those to customers. The phraseology is designed to show that Government policy is restricting night flights when in fact it does nothing to protect the public or even inform them with regard to health risks. Instead airport expansion, the purpose of the Airport Commission findings, is positively encouraged with tax breaks such as that applied to long haul flights in the latest budget.

In the absence of effective Government foresight there is no spur for the aviation dinosaur to start its process of adaption for the future. And yet meaningful changes – a noise metric that better indicates the loudness and frequency of aeroplanes, increased angles of approach, an independent complaints body with real powers to penalise offending airlines –are desperately needed right now.  The development of the quiet plane as triumphed by Vince Cable is decades into the future too late.

Meaningful change is needed for the way aeroplanes use fuel, the type of fuel, and in recognition of natural limits both to the environment and human beings themselves the aviation subsidies should cease. More research and monitoring of air pollution is needed in the UK plus real measures taken to reduce air pollution before any further aviation developments are even contemplated. Green promises about investment in biofuels by the aviation industry, such as those recently announced by Norwegian airlines, neglect the fact that the production of biofuels competes with that for food. There is only so much planet.

Our best hope for correcting the balance between the dinosaurs and the British public may be the industry’s natural predators: one being the IT industry.  The fact that business use of aeroplanes in Britain has fallen in real terms by 25% since 2005 has been attributed to advances such as Skype and the possibility of ‘virtual reality’ meetings are already in development. For London, the recently built deep water ‘super-port’ of the London Gateway may well also turn out to be another contender.

In the meantime, although the death of airports and airlines as we know them is inevitable, these dinosaurs are sadly so numerous and hungry for profit that moves to reduce their carnivorous activities are fought too aggressively for immediate change. In the light of predictions over our climate, increased pressure is needed for the evolution of our dinosaurs into something tamer. This needs to happen soon, and sooner than their activities mean their death comes together with ours.


 Some References:

[i] ‘Bold steps for Kent’ aviation section by Paul Carter, Leader Kent County Council

[ii] The European Union (EU) Environmental Noise Directive 2002/49/EU (END) and UK government regulations transpose the directive requirements into The Environmental Noise (England) Regulations 2006 SI (2006) 2238




[vi] and e.g. also


[vii] It is stated that: ‘…even under high growth assumptions, our forecasts of actual movements and quota usage under the ‘do-nothing’ scenario remain below current movement and quota limits at Gatwick and Stansted up to the end of the three year regime. This implies that retaining the current movement and quota limits would not restrict activity in the NQP [Night Quota Period] at Gatwick or Stansted in this period, and therefore the costs and benefits would be likely to be negligible at these two airports.’

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