Airplane Noise Pollution

Published: 01st July 2007
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For those living under the flight path of the busiest airport in the world a good night's sleep has become a distant dream. A sleep- deprived Tessa Swithinbank explains why Heathrow is a Human Rights issue.

The sun is out and the birds are chattering. It is blissfully quiet and I am deep in slumber. A deep droning noise jerks me awake. No, it is not my Sunday afternoon nap under the pear tree. It is 4.30 a.m. on a summer's morning and the first long haul flight of the day is about to land at Heathrow. I have to get up in two and a half hours to travel to work on a hot, sweaty tube train. Too late, though, to get back to dreamland. That jumbo has broken my sleep for good.

Welcome to life under the flight path of the busiest airport in the world.

In Isleworth, we can just about get used to the aeroplanes coming in every two minutes during the day because landings are rotated so that aircraft don't fly constantly over the same houses. But night flights? I don't think so.

Sixteen night flights have been allowed at Heathrow between 11.30 pm and 6am since 1993. Most of the flights arrive after 4.30 am. The government is looking into the possibility of more night flights, provided aircraft use quieter engines as the older and bigger aircraft make a horrendous noise.

So you can imagine how dismayed both myself, and the other 600,000 people living under Heathrow's flight paths, were to hear that the government had won its appeal against the European Court of Human Rights' ruling that night flights should be banned because we are entitled to a good night's sleep. In fact it was the European Court of Human Rights which overturned its previous decision in 2001 that "there was no overwhelming national interest for night flights at Heathrow, and therefore the residents' basic human right to sleep should not be sacrificed for the convenience of airlines".

So why a change of heart by the court? Economics. According to our local paper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, the court found that the economic benefits to the country as a whole outweighed the interests of sleepless residents. The court said that there had been no violation of Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention (HRC), the right to respect for private and family life and home. However, it did find that under Article 13 of the HRC, the residents hadn't been given the opportunity to make their case fully in the UK courts. So the fight will go on.

Noise is one of the worst pollutants and can ruin your quality of life. Friends of the Earth remind us that night flights have caused many residents to suffer from constant tiredness, clinical depression, irritability, headaches and ear infections caused by wearing earplugs. It maintains that the noise caused by the night flights was substantially in excess of the World Health Organisation's guidelines for avoiding sleep disturbance at night. If you have troublesome noisy neighbours, you are protected by the Noise Act of 1996. But, guess what, it doesn't apply to aircraft noise! According to the UK Noise Association, aviation is virtually above the law.

HACAN Clearskies (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) is the largest voluntary organisation in Europe dedicated to campaigning on behalf of those who suffer because of aircraft flight paths. Whilst not opposed to Heathrow per se, the organisation has fought various battles over the years. It played an important part, for example, in persuading the Government to introduce runway alternation, so that residents in South West London were not continuously bombarded with noise.

There is also the ongoing issue of whether there will be a third runway at Heathrow. Heathrow's proximity to London means aircraft continuously circle over the capital and come in to land over crowded urban areas. (If the 2001 Concorde crash had happened in London, and not in Paris, the plane would have come down on Ealing!)

HACAN believes that a third runway would increase the possibility of a mid air collision over London. It would also mean 500 more flights a day and a plane flying over our houses every minute, not to mention bad air pollution, congested roads and public transport, and disruption of childrens schooling.

So lets keep battling for a decent nights sleep. We may have lost this round of the battle, but it will continue now in the UK courts.

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