Imagine this. You live on a relatively quiet road on the way out of town. There's a bit of traffic as some people use your road on their way home but you expected that when you moved in.
One day, you wake up and overnight bulldozers have turned your road into a motorway with car after car rushing past your house. You later find out that because the council is only 'trialling' the change, nobody had to tell you about it.
How would you feel about that? You'd probably be a bit surprised, and most likely very annoyed. You'd probably feel a bit like Arthur Dent in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, waking up to find Earth is in the way of a galaxy bypass and about to be destroyed (in terms of being bewildered and still in your pyjamas).
It's similar to the recent experiences of people living in communities around Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, and most recently Edinburgh airports, all of whom have been subjected to new flight paths as part of trials aimed at increasing capacity at airports. Many of the communities affected experienced a 'step-change' in the number of flights overhead, suddenly being overflown up to every two minutes. For others, it was the very first time they had experienced life under a flight path and the profound effects that high levels of aircraft noise can have on your health and wellbeing.
Long-term exposure to aircraft noise leads to increased risks of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. Aircraft noise can cause sleep disturbance which can in turn have a debilitating effect on your day-to-day life. It can also impede memory and learning in school children, with primary school pupils exposed to high levels of noise around Heathrow Airport two months behind their counterparts in schools exposed to aircraft noise levels five decibels lower.
Not everybody responds to aircraft noise in the same way and part of the response to noise of all forms is emotional, and influenced by factors such as an individual's attitude to the noise source, whether they have any control over it, and whether they expect to hear it.
In the recent cases of new flight paths though, whole communities have been in uproar. This could be because a sudden change in noise exposure is linked to much greater disturbance than 'steady state conditions'. It could also be because the changes were trials, so required no consultation (hence the Arthur Dent bewilderment). Or maybe it could be because unlike changes to physical infrastructure, airspace changes don't legally require any compensation payments. Maybe even it was because aviation is exempt from noise nuisance laws going back 90 years.
The experiences of communities around Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Edinburgh could become increasingly common. According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), airspace is "in need of modernisation" and that means there's going to be an "unprecedented" number of airspace change proposals in the coming years. These changes could involve new flight paths and new people being overflown.
If changes are to be made to airspace, then communities should be involved throughout the process and their interests should not be overridden by those of the industry, which stands to benefit from the changes. By way of response to the vociferous complaints of affected communities, the CAA launched a consultation last week on a new process that aims to allow for much better community engagement.
However, having a transparent and open process is only one part of the problem. We also need clearer policy from Government and that's why AEF brought together 24 community groups to call on David Cameron to deliver that. Key questions need answering. Does Government think it's acceptable for new flight paths to expose new communities to aircraft noise? And should aircraft be 'concentrated' down increasingly narrow routes, reducing noise for some people but potentially creating 'noise ghettos' for those who are overflown?
Finally, how will changes in airspace affect the health burden from aircraft noise? The industry argues that aircraft are getting quieter but annoyance from aircraft noise is increasing, and a recent report by the EU stated that more people will be affected by aircraft noise in the future, not fewer.
There are no easy answers to some of these questions but it's vital that the Government and CAA start to give communities more of a say, give clarity about what's acceptable when it comes to flight path change, and make it clear how the impacts of noise on health and wellbeing will be reduced in the future. If we're successful in moving these issues up the agenda, hopefully the aviation industry won't be able to bulldoze new flight paths over your house tomorrow.