In December 2011, as part of its airports package, the European Commission wanted the power to scrutinise limits on aircraft noise set by local authorities that govern towns close to airports. Airlines had been complaining that limits were being set arbitrarily and in defiance of national transport needs. But campaigners argued that air travellers were being given priority over local residents.
Most of the restrictions involve the times during which planes can take off – flights are often banned at night. Under the new rules, local authorities would have to justify these bans based on a specific list of concerns. The Commission says that some local noise restrictions compromise safety and could cause capacity problems, as well as increasing carbon dioxide emissions by forcing planes to maintain long holding patterns.
“Residents are entitled to be protected from excessive noise from airports, but it is necessary to take into account costs in terms of lost capacity and the impact on economic growth in a region,” says the Commission.
In December, the European Parliament backed the Commission’s proposal on scrutinising noise limits, despite objections from Green MEPs. “Airports that want to introduce night-time flight bans, which are clearly in the interests of local citizens, could be challenged by the Commission,” complained Austrian Green MEP Eva Lichtenberger. “This approach is designed to favour increasing EU airport capacity.”
Major studies conducted in the US and Germany have concluded that airport noise can increase the risk of heart attacks or heart disease. Persistent exposure to noise has been shown to cause hearing impairment, hypertension and sleep disturbance.
Aircraft manufacturers have made progress in developing quieter planes. For instance, modern ‘high-bypass turbofan’ engines are quieter than turbojets and the low-bypass turbofans that were used 40 years ago.
A new area of focus for reducing noise is altered flight patterns. Some industry experts also want changes to landing and take-off methods to improve safety and cut noise.
“There are rules which imply that the aircraft descent should be by steps,” says Eric Dautriat of the Clean Sky programme. “This makes the descent longer, so the total noise perceived is more. And it’s actually less cost-effective than having a continuous descent.”