COVID-19 and aviation: managing the return of noise

Written by: Nick Boud
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Some airport operators are able to provide short periods of predictable respite through changes in runway usage. London Heathrow, for example, swaps runways at 15:00 every day, meaning that some who had noise in the morning get a period of respite in the afternoon and vice-versa. COVID-19 has provided the longest period of respite from aviation noise that many communities have experienced since the modern era of commercial air travel began. So how can we manage the return of noise as traffic picks up?

The value of respite from noise annoyance is something I think everyone understands and appreciates; whether it is when someone listening to loud music leaves the carriage of a train; or when your neighbour finally turns off their lawn mower on a sunny and previously peaceful afternoon; or when your over excited child finally falls asleep; or the wind changes and the local airport swaps runway directions. According to attention restoration theory the brain can restore its finite cognitive resources when we are in environments with lower levels of sensory input than usual.

The degree of annoyance experienced by an individual is not only related to acoustic variables, several personal and situational variables can be significant influences. Research has shown that age, fear, noise sensitivity, beliefs on the necessity of the noise source, ability to control the source, trust in authorities and previous experience with or future expectations regarding the noise[1] are all factors. An airport authority cannot alter many of these non-acoustic factors, but it can work to build trust and manage expectations. The University of Windsor, Ontario is conducting research in partnership with Greater Toronto Airports Authority, into the social acoustic metrics for aircraft noise annoyance and they have used the period of respite generated by COVID-19 to survey communities in the Greater Toronto Area; in time we may better understand the acoustic and non-acoustic factors as well as the power of respite.

It can take years for individuals living close to railway lines, busy roads, airports or under flight paths to become habituated to noise, if they ever do. Yet when the noise is removed it only takes a matter of hours or days before the stress starts to melt away. Following a period of noise, people become habituated to the peace almost instantly. It is little wonder that when noise returns following prolonged periods of respite, community members who are sensitive to the noise will be the first to react to it and are likely to experience an increased level of annoyance. There will also be residents who become sensitised for the first time, because the return of noise following respite is more noticeable, and potentially swell the numbers of those who complain and protest.

Perception is reality

Airports around the globe have seen traffic fall to unprecedented levels since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns, with many seeing over a 90% reduction. As traffic returns to our airports and the number of daily and weekly flights climb, aviation noise will penetrate homes once again. The claims that aircraft are louder than previously, that flight paths have changed, that aircraft are lower, or that flights are more frequent will rapidly re-surface. It is possible that years of engagement effort building relationships with communities, individuals, local organisations, and elected officials could unravel.

So, what should airports do in response? The answer is to be proactive. Communicate to communities the recovery of traffic, manage expectations, and take necessary steps to protect their 'social operating license'. Nobody likes unpleasant surprises and being disturbed by that first arrival at 05:30, after a gap of three or more months, will not be welcome.

Filling the information vacuum

In times of crisis and disruption, people search for information. The return of noise will feel disruptive to local communities and it will help if airports 'fill the vacuum' with accurate, honest, and helpful information, infographics, and forums to answer questions. Things like:

  • How much lower is traffic now compared to normal?
  • What is the projected growth in traffic over the next 1, 2, 3 and 4 weeks? Transparency is essential; if traffic is going to double from this week to next week, i.e. 100 flights to 200 flights, say so.
  • Did the traffic projected for last week match the traffic that operated? i.e. is the recovery happening faster or slower than expected.
  • Plots of flight paths from the same period last year to demonstrate that aircraft are in the same locations or explain why if not.
  • Explanations if operating practices are still different to what was normal prior to COVID-19. For example:
  • oDid you regularly operate two runways simultaneously, but you can still manage the demand with one?
  • oHave you used the lockdown period to undertake maintenance that limits your ability to return to a normal runway / flight operation?

Alongside the suggestions above it would be helpful to share with communities:

  • The steps the airport is taking to protect them from further transmissions of COVID-19.
  • The activities the airport took during the peak of the crisis to help communities, health care systems and the nation.
  • Positive improvements in the aircraft fleets operated by airlines at your airport. Such as:
  • oDelta flew its last McDonnell Douglas MD88 / MD90 on 2nd June. The replacements will be Airbus A320 family and Airbus A220 series which are significantly quieter.
  • oLufthansa, Air France, Korean Air, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic and KLM have cut back or retired their Airbus A380 and / or Boeing 747 operations, in favour of the quieter and more fuel-efficient Boeing 787, Airbus A350 and Airbus A330neo.
  • The value and employment that the airport brings to the local and national economy.

Whether it is to see family and friends, take a holiday or conduct business, at some point the majority of us will fly again. There are many aviation experts forecasting that it will take until 2024 for aviation to regain the traffic lost because of COVID-19. However, since the start of June the number of commercial air transport flights are growing by 5-10% week on week[2]. In a normal period, 5 to 10% growth per annum in aircraft movements would be almost unheard for any airport. Our local communities are experiencing a rapid return of traffic and noise that is unprecedented. It is our duty to these communities to do what we can to explain and mitigate the annoyance aviation will cause. We can do this through the effective communication of traffic expectations utilising interactive dashboards and infographics. Relatively small actions taken now to engage and share information with communities can help to reduce the social annoyance with aviation for years to come.

[1] Personal and Social Variables as Co-Determinants of Noise Annoyance, R Guski, Noise Health, 1999

[2] Analysis of data from https://www.flightradar24.com/data/statistics

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