Plane noise


Aviation noise is unwanted sound generated by aircraft, and it is a serious and growing problem in the UK. As airports expand and air services increase, more and more homes are exposed for large parts of the day to persistent background plane noise.

Noise from aircraft is subject to an entirely different regulatory regime to other noise pollution. The Civil Aviation Act 1982 provides that no action for trespass or nuisance can be taken as long as an aircraft observes the rules of the Air and Air Traffic Control Regulations, which also cover ground movements.

In 2016, a report by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) claimed that over one million people in the UK are exposed to aircraft noise above levels recommended for the protection of health, and that around 460 schools are exposed to aircraft noise at levels around Heathrow “that can impede memory and learning in children”.

A further 600,000 people in the UK are said to be exposed to average aircraft noise levels that risk regular sleep disturbance.

A Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 approaches Heathrow Airport flying low over homes near the runway

Aviation noise is generated both by actual aircraft and by airport ground operations, including ground transportation. However, where noise from ground operations is largely confined to the immediate vicinity of an airport where there are limited numbers of residential homes, noise from planes is more pervasive and impacts on a far wider range of people.

The problem of plane noise is particularly bad for those houses that live within the final 8 miles of a runway approach.

Whilst outside of these areas, flight paths can change and aircraft are typically higher from the ground, in the last 8 miles of their approach, planes are expected to constantly line up with the runway. Although households near multi runway airports may receive some rest bite if the airport switches the approach runway in the middle of each day, the majority of the UK’s airports are single runway.


Controversies around plane noise

Many aspects of the UK’s aviation noise control regime are highly controversial.

The World Health Organisation argues that noise pollution can cause interference with communication, sleep disturbance, increased annoyance responses, noise-induced hearing loss, learning acquisition, performance effects, and cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects. Studies have suggested that the reading age of children in schools under flight paths is below the national average.

However, this and the environmental problems associated with aviation are frequently outweighed in the eyes of government by the economic imperatives pressing for expansion of the sector. Indeed, this very expansion undermines many of the restrictions in place: Chapter 3 regulations permitted greater levels of noise from larger aircraft; while the simple fact of increased aircraft movements push the Leq (sound measurement) level upwards.

The Leq standard is also controversial. Firstly, it is not internationally recognised, with many other countries using different measures. Secondly, it is unresponsive to the number of noise events – a doubling of the number of same-level events in a given period would only increase the Leq by 3. Unlike other European indices, Leq does not give special weighting to night and other sensitive times of day.

Opponents also argue that the Community Annoyance Thresholds, designed in the 1980s, are out of date. It is also argued that “Annoyance” is an inappropriate term to describe a phenomenon with the associated health risks of aviation noise.

The aviation industry is frequently accused of insensitivity to the problems of aircraft noise. While the majority of aircraft in service today are capable of meeting Chapter 4 requirements, industry resistance has kept the 30-year-old Chapter 3 standard in force.

The proposed Heathrow expansion has reignited the issue of aviation noise, as the extended runways would have a flight path encompassing many areas that had previously been exempt from direct over-flights, including Chelsea and Notting Hill. If the expansion goes ahead as planned, the number of people subject to aviation noise levels above 57 decibels will rise from 375,000 to 535,000.

Those concerned about airplane noise in the UK are aware that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, represents the Uxbridge constituency, on the outskirts of Heathrow airport. Issues around plane noise are frequently cited in the debate around the expansion of Heathrow.


Regulatory Regime
The Air Navigation Act 1920 provided the basis of the UK’s aviation noise regulation regime, by exempting aviation from nuisance sanctions, in order to stimulate the nascent industry.

This principle was reaffirmed in the Civil Aviation Act 1982, which nonetheless set out a number of provisions for controlling noise at larger airports through a process of “designation”, which has only been applied to date to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. By their Section 78 designation, the Transport Secretary is responsible for regulating take-off and landing noise at these airports.

In practice, noise restrictions at designated airports have been implemented through restrictions on departing aircraft noise, controls on night flying and (at Heathrow and Gatwick, under Section 79) housing noise insulation schemes.

At other airports, the successive governments have continued to favour local resolution. Councils’ main instrument in this regard is the Section 106 Obligation, a condition that can be placed on planning permission. These Obligations can limit movement numbers, operating hours and the types of permitted aircraft. Voluntary agreements can also be reached. London City Airport and Luton Airport, for example, have agreed maximum noise exposure contours, which must not be exceeded.

Under the Environmental Noise (England) Regulations 2006 (as amended), which transpose the provisions of EU Directive 2002/49/EC relating to environmental noise from transport and industry, airport operators are required to produce a Noise Action Plan which must be approved by the Government and reviewed every five years.

Aircraft Design
Aviation is necessarily an international business, making unilateral domestic regulation difficult. However, successive agreements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have sought to impose controls on aircraft design in order to minimise noise pollution.

Since the 1960s, jet engines have become four times quieter. A process of driving up noise pollution standards has been pursued by the ICAO, and by the European Civil Aviation Conference. In 2002, “Chapter 2” aircraft were outlawed from the EU, and the new “Chapter 4” came into force in January 2006, which improved upon the current “Chapter 3” standard by a cumulative 10 dBa. The majority of aircraft in service today already meet the Chapter 4 requirements. EU regulation of aviation noise has focused on improving engine technology to date.

In December 2017, a new series of Chapter 14 standards were put in place to replace Chapter 4. The Chapter 14 standards set noise 7dB below Chapter 4, and it is applicable to all new aeroplane types submitted for certification. Although it will take some time to feed through as air fleets are replaced, this change is expected to make a significant improvement to noise pollution over the next three decades.

Night Flights
Night flights are a particularly controversial aspect of airplane noise. Studies have shown that sleep can be disturbed at a relatively low Leq (sound measurement) level of just 30. The first restrictions on night flights were imposed at Heathrow in 1962. Reviews have taken place since then in 1988, 1993 and 1998. Ten airports are now subject to night noise controls under the Aerodromes (Noise Restrictions) (Rules and Procedures) Regulations 2003. The Government undertook to consult on a new night noise regime in 2004, and decided that the existing limits on night flights should remain until 2012.

A contributing factor to this decision was the widespread media publicity in 2001 following legal action by a group of residents known collectively as the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN). They took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which endorsed the Government’s right to balance the economic interests of airlines in providing night flights against the welfare of local people. The Government agreed to review arrangements in the wake of the case.

Military Aircraft
Military aircraft present a different sort of problem, insofar as they are exempted from all controls under Crown Immunity. While the armed forces carry out high levels of low flying exercises in some parts of the country, the MoD has offered assurances that it will only invoke its immunity to protect “operational effectiveness”.


Aviation noise affects considerable numbers of people living near airports across the UK. Partly as a result of the UK’s relatively high population density, the top 15 UK airports account for more than one million of the 2.5 million people affected by aviation noise across the Europe Union (41 per cent of the total), based on the European standard measure of 55LDen. The impact is heavily concentrated around Heathrow, which alone accounts for 28.5 per cent of the European population affected. Three airports are designated for the purposes of noise regulation: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Designation gives the Secretary of State the power to put in place certain noise mitigation measures at these airports – [Source: CAA – December 2011]


“Aviation noise is, in many ways, the converse of climate change. As the impacts are often concentrated on local populations, any policy measures should ideally address local conditions and seek to engage local decision-makers.”- CAA – December 2011

“We live under a sky of sound unmatched anywhere else in Europe….Over the last year we have been working more closely with BAA than ever before to look at ways of mitigating the noise. It is essential that we find ways to give all areas some relief from this level of constant noise.” – HACAN chair John Stewart – December 2011

Living within a daytime aircraft noise path (with noise at or above 55 decibels) … was negatively associated with all measures of subjective wellbeing: lower life satisfaction, lower sense of worthwhile, lower happiness, lower positive affect balance, and increased anxiety. The authors found consistently negative and significant results across all five variables. The researchers could also predict the effect on subjective wellbeing associated with each decibel increase in noise, which they say has potential for modelling the possible wellbeing impacts due to changes in aircraft noise”. -European Commission Report – 2016