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Noise must be a key priority as aviation starts to recover

Posted: 10 July 2020 | | No comments yet

ICCAN Head Commissioner, Rob Light, details how the way noise is managed should be approached as aviation begins to recover.

Noise must be a priority consideration during COVID-19

If this pandemic can teach us anything for the future, it is surely how quickly and dramatically change can occur, especially in ways we least expect.

Back when ICCAN was formed, a little over 18 months ago, airports around the UK were busy planning to expand their operations and increase capacity, with proposals for new terminals and runways being designed and discussed. In parallel, a complete overhaul of the UK’s flightpaths, as part of the airspace modernisation programme, was in its early stages.

Given the particular health impacts of noise, it is of paramount importance that noise management and mitigation is properly considered as activity levels pick up again

Into this landscape we arrived, as a new independent advisory body, set up to understand the issues around aviation noise and the impact it has on local communities. Our remit: To make clear, evidence-based recommendations to the UK government and aviation industry on how this could be improved, with the aim of making the UK a world leader in noise management. We produced our first Corporate Strategy in spring 2019, which set out how we would do this over the next two years.

At that point we could barely have imagined the devasting effect COVID-19 would have on the world. We feel a great deal of empathy for the many thousands employed in the aviation industry who will now face an uncertain future as we have watched this deadly pandemic spread across the globe, impacting all of our lives.

The industry is understandably going to want to return to something representing normality, but we have to acknowledge that it may take years to get back to 2019 levels. We see the current situation, and I write this with the utmost sensitivity, as an opportunity for a re-think about the way aviation noise is managed.

We are in an unprecedented moment and it would be a mistake to simply return to where we were without pausing to reflect on the situation prior to this slowdown in aviation. Because for many thousands of people across the UK, they are experiencing something new and perhaps a little alien to them: Quieter skies.

Improving relationships through transparent decision-making

One of the reasons that ICCAN was established was that relationships between some airports and communities had reached a tipping point. Trust between the two had become strained and, in some cases, broken down completely. One of the expected outcomes of the quieter skies that many communities are now experiencing is that when aviation levels do increase, the noise will be even more noticeable.

Despite there being fewer planes in the sky, the issues around noise still exist, so discussions, however they are had in the interim, are as vital as ever

If this trust is to be repaired, then the public will need to see that the rebuilding of the aviation industry is done in a sustainable way. The decisions taken when rebuilding cannot come at any cost, and this applies to the detrimental effects of noise on the public, as much as it does to climate concerns.

Given the particular health impacts of noise on some communities around airports, it is of paramount importance that noise management and mitigation is properly considered as activity levels pick up again and, in due course, the modernisation of our airspace is re-started.

Considering that some are experiencing the quietest skies for generations, if decisions are made swiftly that don’t prioritise noise management, then we could see a negative reaction from those communities. Flight numbers should not return to pre-COVID-19 levels without better regulation and oversight of noise being in place.

The recent decisions made by some airlines – such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways – to use this moment as an opportunity to retire some of the older and noisier fleet of aircraft is a good step, but we must build on this to implement a clear and consistent approach to noise mitigation. The measurement, monitoring and regulation of aviation noise must be more transparent and better managed by government, industry and regulators.

We know we have an important part to play so we are ready to assist to ensure that the UK becomes a world leader in aviation noise management.

Communication is as important as ever

As the industry refocuses its attempts on rebuilding, it must take their communities with them and our work so far has indicated that there is a real desire to do this.

Just weeks before the UK entered lockdown, we held a workshop for airports about airspace change, specifically on how to consult with the public about it. We wanted to hear from them about which aspects of consulting and engaging were of the greatest concern, as well as to capture good practice where it had occurred. The session was held so that we could gather feedback for a toolkit ICCAN is producing on consulting for airspace change.

While the airspace change programme has rightly been paused, the workshop was incredibly useful as we also learnt a lot about different approaches to engagement. It was reassuring to hear attendees saying that they wanted to understand their audiences more as well as identify the best ways to communicate with them, particularly reaching out to those that aren’t part of their regular everyday communications.

Good communication is always vital; however, it is key that airports recognise that good engagement is really important at times of low activity too. Keeping communities and stakeholders informed now will make future conversations and engagement much more productive when activity increases.

Currently we are experiencing historic levels of noise activity, so this is a unique opportunity for us to understand this data and its impact before levels start to rise

That is why we have been pleased to see that during this slowdown, some engagement has been taking place, as airports move their meetings online to keep conversations going. This is something we would encourage.

Despite there being fewer planes in the sky, the issues around noise still exist, so discussions, however they are had in the interim, are as vital as ever. As a nation it seems that we’re all getting to grips with working and interacting a little differently, and people have never been more switched on to the technologies available to do this.

Even though some airports may feel they have less to communicate right now, we believe this is an opportune moment to begin having productive conversations about noise and the way to discuss it going forward. This is a great opportunity to bring new audiences into that conversation. As people become more used to online meetings, the previous geographical and time restraints of holding face-to-face meetings matter less, so it is up to airports to utilise technology and reignite the conversations around noise.  

Unfortunately, we don’t know when we will be able to return to a room together, so we are currently looking at how airports can continue to engage effectively on noise, particularly by adopting new innovative technologies and methods for a piece of work we plan to publish later in 2020. We want to reflect on the impact COVID-19 has had and how airports can develop their practices for the benefit of communities and wider stakeholders.  

Impact of COVID-19 on ICCAN’s work

The events of the last few months have required us to review and revise ICCAN’s work programme, and we have just updated our plans to reflect the current situation. Our toolkit on consulting for airspace change, initially due for publication in April 2020, will be published at a more appropriate time, when airports start to refocus on their airspace change programmes.

Given the impact on the current levels of aviation activity, we will spend the summer period collecting and analysing data on aircraft movements, noise monitoring and attitudes around airports. Currently we are experiencing historic levels of noise activity, so this is a unique opportunity for us to understand this data and its impact before levels start to rise.

We also intend to publish our work on metrics in which we will set out our opinion of improvements required to the way in which aviation noise is monitored, measured, analysed and published. This publication will set out a framework of improvements to the consistency, reliability and transparency of noise measurement – one step further along the path to rebuilding the trust between communities and the industry.

As the independent body that advises on aviation noise, we are ready to play our role in shaping the way noise is managed as the industry recovers, however long that takes.

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