Despite the focus on reducing carbon emissions, aircraft noise remains the key environmental concern for airports

Despite the focus on reducing carbon emissions, aircraft noise remains the key environmental concern for airports | Birmingham Airport,Heathrow Airport,Airport Operators Association

(photo: Birmingham Airport)

Fri 18 May 2012 – An aviation policy framework was needed that addressed sustainability issues but also created headroom for UK aviation to grow, a government aviation policy official told the recent UK Airport Operators Association (AOA) Environment Conference in London. She said the government recognised that solving the noise debate, a particularly contentious issue in the south-east of England, was a difficult issue but it wanted to work with all sides to find constructive solutions. BAA Sustainability Director Matt Gorman said that the current environmental debate surrounding aviation was focused on climate change but noise remained the key issue for airports. He said a number of initiatives were being rolled out at London Heathrow to reduce aircraft noise still further and form better understanding of noise impacts on local communities.


Kate Jennings, Head of Aviation Policy Implementation at the Department for Transport, said as the levels of aircraft noise had reduced – “a huge achievement” – the frequency of flights had gone up and that was the source of most complaints by people living around airports. She said airport noise contours – the noise footprint – were useful but didn’t necessarily reflect public perception on the ground, although she acknowledged the level of complaints was coming down. “It’s a success story but perhaps we’re not quite communicating it as effectively as we should and we need better ways of capturing noise metrics that address how the public feel about aircraft noise,” she told delegates.


She said that while there was every incentive for aircraft manufacturers to reduce emissions, as this also was directly related to reducing fuel consumption, the incentive to reduce noise was not so straightforward. “That’s why at an ICAO and political level we need to keep the pressure on to identify ways of further reducing noise and there needs to be an intelligent debate on the trade-offs between emissions and noise.”


Jennings reported the government would be publishing a policy framework later this year addressing issues such as noise and carbon emissions, as well as aviation capacity. “It is critical though that we set incentives so that noise is taken seriously.”


She also wanted to see the creation of a framework that encouraged debate and effective engagement at a local level which both looked at the economic advantages of having a local airport but also took into account the impact on communities. “Such an approach, of course, has to be proportionate – measures put in place at Heathrow, for example, may not be appropriate for all airports,” she added.


She said the government was keen to explore how compensation schemes for residents affected by noise could be better targeted and measured.


Matt Gorman, Sustainability Director for BAA, which operates London Heathrow, said noise had remained the key environmental issue for airports for many years and had reasserted itself strongly in the current policy debate, despite being masked to some extent by concerns over climate change.


He said BAA had a major strategic work programme underway this year to address the noise issue. “The starting point for us is that we and the industry have a strong story to tell on noise and the challenge is to communicate the message more forcibly,” he said. “But equally we recognise that this alone is not enough.”


He said BAA had reduced the Heathrow noise contour by 60% but the focus during 2012 would be to improve understanding of what could further reduce noise over and above what was already being done and to change attitudes. This, he said, would be structured in the context of ICAO’s internationally-supported Balanced Approach, looking at quieter planes, quieter procedures, operating restrictions and land use and mitigation.


He said a particular challenge was to forecast the world’s aircraft fleet up to 2050 to understand the noise footprint of the future and the technological opportunities to improve noise performance. Heathrow in particular and UK airports as a whole, he said, had been at the forefront in introducing quieter procedures such as Continuous Descent Approaches. Looking ahead, trials of new procedures were planned at Heathrow including a project later this year in conjunction with NATS, the UK’s air navigation service provider, and environmental campaign groups Aviation Environment Federation and HACAN that would look at the predictability of noise.


Gorman said planning restrictions on the growth of residential properties around airports had not appeared to have worked. BAA had found that after looking at the 2009 noise contour around Heathrow, the number of households in the area had increased by 16% over 1991. “Interestingly, it shows people are willing to move into noisy areas around the airport and we are looking to understand the impact of the airport on property prices and housing turnover.” He said evidence from the United States was that residential and commercial property prices near to hub airports actually rose because of connectivity advantages.


He said that in response to guidance from government, as well as on its own initiative, BAA would look at rationalising and updating noise mitigation schemes around Heathrow so that they more effectively responded to community concerns.


Heathrow has the strictest noise restrictions of any major European hub, maintained Gorman, and also has further voluntary night-time restrictions in place. The airport operator was also starting to discuss with airline customers a voluntary phasing-out of the noisiest aircraft (Chapter 3) by 2015. Together with British Airways, it has also commissioned a study into the value of night flights to the economy and was also looking to reduce their impact.


BAA has added a fifth dimension to the Balanced Approach, that of communications. Gorman said the last 15 years had seen a steady downward trend in complaints, which now stood at 4,000 per year, and BAA had carried out extensive research on how noise information could be more accessible. He said the focus would now be on how to better understand the drivers behind noise annoyance complaints, look at supplementary metrics other than just noise contours and how to continue to improve communication.


In addition to its noise programme, Heathrow is developing over the next few months a roadmap as part of the recently-launched Heathrow Sustainability Partnership, which aims to enhance the airport’s economic and social benefits while reducing its environmental impacts. Long-term goals and five-year action plans will be drawn up with the airport community to improve performance on a range of environmental projects covering carbon emissions, energy, noise, air quality, waste, recycling and water consumption, along with CSR initiatives.


A leadership board has been set up comprising 15 CEOs from some of the largest companies located at Heathrow to set targets and plans. Four pilot projects covering a car share scheme, clean vehicles, recycling and local employment were started in 2011 and a broader action plan has been set up this year in support of the sustainability roadmap. Gorman says 20 to 30 key actions will be targeted over the next few years.


A website called Heathrow Airthought ( has been launched to share ideas on what the airport can do to protect the environment and support local communities.


Robert Siddall, AOA’s Policy Director, reported that Heathrow studies had shown that 10-15% of the carbon emissions associated with an aircraft flight occurred at the airport, with 30% of these (representing 3-5% of the total flight emissions) coming from aircraft ground movements. He said that although this was a small proportion overall it was an important area where airports can make a significant contribution.


A programme was launched at the beginning of 2011 involving 23 AOA member airports to identify and reduce carbon emissions from aircraft taxiing. During the year a spreadsheet tool has been developed, reported Siddall, to log data gathered at the airports.


“We hope this monitoring will drive behaviour and help airports work with airlines to see where there is scope to do more to reduce emissions,” he said.


The first results were starting to come in for assessment, reported Siddall, and a progress report would published in 2013 as part of the work programme carried out by the UK aviation industry’s Sustainable Aviation group.


Birmingham Airport, one of the airports in the programme, has been operating an initiative for some years to reduce emissions from aircraft on the ground through reduced engine taxiing (RET), continuous taxiing and Fixed Electrical Ground Power (FEGP) use to replace APUs. The airport’s Environment Manager, Kirstin Kane, reported that 70% of the major airlines were now using RET procedures. Using the AOA spreadsheet tool, RET is estimated to be saving over 600 tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum.


Through working with ATC to improve taxi times and reduce holding and stop/starts, 90% of aircraft were able to continuous taxi, which saved around 128kg of CO2 per taxi. Kane said 90% of stands at Birmingham were now fitted with FEGP and charging incentives were in place for airlines to use the facility rather than rely on aircraft APUs. In 2008, only 52% of arrivals used FEGP but this year the proportion had increased to 87.5%.


Birmingham has also worked hard, she said, with NATS and airlines on identifying and improving local airspace efficiencies that had led to significant CO2 reductions and fewer local residents affected by noise. Controlled Descent Arrivals were introduced in 2008 and a 95% compliance rate achieved every month, one of the best in the UK, claimed Kane. Controlled Continuous Departure procedures were started in 2010, with 85% compliance.




Aircraft Operators Association

Heathrow Airport – Community and Environment

Birmingham Airport - Environment



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