How to create fair flight paths

Briefing Sheet:

Is there a way to create fairer flight paths?


Flight paths are the key issue for most residents impacted by airports.  In Europe there are very few plans for new airports or new runways.  Heathrow wants a new runway.  So does Vienna and Munich.  And, of course, Nantes wants a new airport.  But, as far was we know, that is it.

The big problem for most communities in Europe is the number of planes using the flight paths over their heads.  This briefing sheet looks at what can be done to make flight paths fairer.

  1. Give people respite from the noise

At Heathrow planes landing over London switch runways at 15.00 hours each day to give people living within about 10 kilometres from the airport a half days break from the noise.  In spring 2017 it will be publishing a major study looking how this respite can be extending to other areas.

New computer technology allows aircraft to be guided much more precisely.  This allows multiple flight paths to be created.  Each flight path could only be used for part of the day.  This would enable the noise to be shared more equally.  Of course, at some airports this might mean new areas being under a flight path.  This needs to be thought about very carefully but, in principle, multiple flight paths are fairer.

2.  Use new technology to help local communities

Aircraft technology is improving all the time.  Planes are now able to turn on to their final approach path to the runway much closer to the airport than in the past.  Some experts say that planes can join their final approach as close as about 6 kilometres from the airport.  In means that in the future aircraft could vary the distance at which they join their final approach path in order to make sure the noise is shared if that is what the communities at an airport want.

3. Introduce quieter planes on flight paths

Individual aircraft have become quieter over the last 40 years or so but this has been off-set by the huge  growth in the number of aircraft at most European airports, leading to an increase in annoyance and complaints. Aircraft will continue to get quieter but, over the next 20 years, the industry is not expecting a significant step-change.  The cut in noise that does take place will largely be down to quieter engines; reducing airframe noise is more challenging and it could be beyond 2050 before significant reductions are in place:  Quieter planes, then, have a useful role to play but, on their own, won’t provide the sort of noise reductions communities on flight paths are looking for.

4. Improve operational practices

Steeper descent approaches, steeper departures and improved flying techniques will help reduce the impact of noise over communities.  ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation) currently only permits aircraft to land at a 3 degree angle except when safety might be compromised such as London City Airport where the presence of tall buildings close to the airport requires a steeper approach.  However, both Heathrow and Frankfurt have experimented with a 3.2 degree approach.  In itself, it makes very little difference to noise on the ground but Heathrow sees it as a first step to introducing even steeper descents.  What is most likely is the introduction of steeper descents further from the airport with a 3.2 angle being retained for the last few miles before touchdown.  Heathrow is also assessing if there are ways in which aircraft can take off more rapidly.

The way a plane is flown can off-set the benefits of quieter planes or steeper descents and departures – what may appear to be relatively technical things like where a plane lowers its landing gear can impact on noise levels.