I have received the following reply from the Minister for Aviation at the Department for Transport in response to questions I posed on mitigating aircraft noise:
Thank you for your letter of 10 June about aircraft noise at Heathrow Airport. I am sorry that you have been receiving complaints on this matter and that you have not yet received answers to the questions you previously raised. I hope that the responses below are helpful in understanding the steps both Government and industry have taken in addressing the problems caused by aircraft noise.
1. The Government currently limits Heathrow to 5,800 flights a year during the night quota period, which runs from 23.30 to 06.00. This equates to approximately 16 ‘movements per night. Heathrow also voluntarily bans any aircraft scheduled to land between 04.30 and 06.00 from landing before 04.30 and does not schedule any departures between 23.00 and 06.00. The vast majority of Heathrow’s night movements are flights arriving from long haul destinations, especially South East Asia, between 04.30 and 06.00. These flights typically arrive from the east due to wind conditions and will not therefore arrive over Wokingham. As a result of time differences, these flights represent demand from business users wanting to travel at the end of the previous day in order to arrive in time for work the next day, and generate significant benefits for the UK economy. These flights all count towards Heathrow’s night movement limit. The current night flights regime lasts until October 2017 and the Government plans to consult on the new regime from spring 2016. As part of this process, a wide range of options will be considered and both the economic benefits of night flights and the costs to communities will be assessed.
2. The Government also sets a noise quota limit at Heathrow which limits the total noise an airport can make during the night quota period and encourages quieter aircraft. Aircraft are certified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) according to the noise they produce and the higher the band an aircraft is certified as the higher quota amount it uses with each movement. This encourages Heathrow to schedule quieter planes in the night quota period. The Government has also prohibited the noisiest types of aircraft from using the airport during the night. Heathrow themselves are encouraging airlines to use quieter aircraft by charging much lower landing fees for the quietest planes before 06.00. As part of the next flights consultation, the Government will consider what other incentives can be employed to encourage the use of quieter aircraft at night. Many airlines are already in the process of phasing out noisier aircraft, for instance British Airways have begun to replace their Boeing 747s with the quieter Airbus A380.
3. The Government expects industry to continue the good progress already made in addressing the problems caused by aircraft noise. A part of ICAO’s Balanced Approach to managing aircraft noise, reducing noise at source will remain the priority for tackling the issue. Improvements in aircraft design have meant that the noise contour around Heathrow has reduced over the years even as the number of flights has increased. The UK was instrumental in securing an agreement on a tougher international noise standard in the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP). This requires new types of large civil aircraft, from 2017, to be at least 7dB quieter in total, across the three test points, than the current standard. Standards for smaller aircraft will be similarly reduced in 2020. Heathrow themselves are working with airlines and manufacturers to achieve the phase out of the noisiest Chapter 3 aircraft still in service, which make up just 1% of the aircraft in use at Heathrow, down from 5% in 2009. They are also working to encourage airlines to retrofit noise reducing technology to the A320 family of aircraft that make up the majority of planes that use the airport.
4. It is recognised that continuous climb operations and continuous descent operations reflect industry best practice and can have a beneficial impact on the noise for local communities. For this reason, the Government, as part of the Future Airspace Strategy, will continue to encourage the CAA and industry to explore options that allow even steeper angles of ascent and descent. Heathrow will be trialling steeper angles of descent in September 2015, but as I’m sure you will understand, safety will have to remain the paramount concern in deciding whether these changes go ahead.
5. No action is taken against individual pilots who fly planes in a way that increases noise, but the Government does set departure noise limits and Heathrow fines airlines who breach these. In addition to noise limits, the Government issues noise abatement procedures to Heathrow that stipulate an aircraft must be flown in a certain way to minimise the impact of noise. These procedures include the use of continuous climb, continuous descent operations and lower power/low drag operations, and ensuring that at 6.5km from take-off, an aircraft must have an altitude of at least 1000ft. The Department of Transport’s Aircraft Noise Management Advisory Committee (ANMAC) regularly review these procedures for effectiveness and consider additional measures that can be taken. Heathrow have also introduced the Fly Quiet programme which ranks airlines by the noise they produce and incentivises airlines to prioritise the reduction of noise by recognising good performance.
I would like to reassure you that the Government recognises noise is the primary concern of local communities near airports and will continue to balance these concerns when assessing the economic benefits that the aviation sector generates. As stated in the 2013 Aviation Policy Framework, the Government expects that future growth in aviation should ensure that benefits are shared between the aviation industry and local communities and that the industry must continue to reduce and mitigate noise as airport capacity grows. The Government will ensure that any future decision on runway capacity fully considers the noise impacts on communities and how these can be mitigated.