Heathrow aircraft noise and why a drop in demand for air travel is unlikely

Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

As the first plane drifted across west London on the first day of July, I was preparing for a curious event. While the passengers were walking off the Airbus A380 from Hong Kong at Terminal 5, I was among two dozen journalists walking into the Royal United Services Institute. The mansion, opposite Horseguards, had been hired for the morning as Mission Control for the most important event for years in UK aviation.

The Airports Commission choice of where to build a new London runway was market-sensitive, so it had to be revealed at 7am. In this online world, stories need to be written in advance, so they could be filed and published simultaneously with the first chime of Big Ben.

It was the stuff of exam nightmares, where the question was: "In 1,000 words, explain the recommendation of Sir Howard Davies's Airports Commission for expanding aviation capacity in South-east England, including the costs, benefits and likely response. You may refer to the 342-page Final Report on your desk. You have 90 minutes, starting now. No conferring."

The sort of exam that allows calculators would enable you to work out that that amounts to 16 seconds per page, with no time left for actual writing – which would earn a poor mark from The Independent's online editors. So, as the heat intensified, I resorted to the report's Executive Summary. Only now have I had a chance to read the whole document. Just in case you have better things to do this sweltering summer than pore over the findings, allow me to bring you some of the nuggets it contains as it explains the case for a new third runway at Heathrow.

Much of the noise of the debate is about noise, and in particular the din that disrupts the slumbers of west London. You can visualise it on the exquisitely named "noise and tranquility map". Troubled nights have a financial value assigned, known as "monetised sleep disturbance", and by 2030 we could be saving £100,000 by exporting aircraft noise. How does that work?

By delaying the 18 arrivals that are scheduled to touch down at Heathrow before 6am – starting with the British Airways red-eye from Hong Kong. Its departure, along with overnight flights on Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic, would be delayed until after midnight. Handy for the residents of Richmond, less convenient for those dwelling in Discovery Bay, close to Hong Kong's airport. Likewise, the report notes that Kuala Lumpur and Lagos have no curfew, so those planes bound for Heathrow could take off after midnight. No figure is put on the disturbed nights in Asia and Africa.

Being there

While the heat at Heathrow soared to the highest July figure ever recorded in the UK – 36.7C (or 98F, on the scale in effect the last time I sat a midsummer exam) – the report explained why a drop in demand for air travel is unlikely.

Is your journey really necessary? The internet already allows instant, free video conversations. As it gets better, won't business travellers fly less? In fact, the research suggests "video-conferencing may actually encourage more international interactions". The Airports Commission even wondered if 3D printing could cut the need for air cargo. The answer: "It may have some impact on global supply chains, but it is unlikely to significantly affect the sectors that are strongly reliant on air freight, such as machinery, pharmaceuticals or food."

Happy landings

The cheeriest finding of all is a brief paragraph on page 70: proof, at the start of peak travel season, that holidays are good for you: "Empirical analysis focused on passengers travelling on holiday or to visit friends and family has shown how the access to leisure travel affects mental health and wellbeing. The findings demonstrate these patterns of travel are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, general and mental health, and happiness." Not like an exam, then.

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