Paul Vallely: Terminal pain of a life under the flight path

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The Independent Online

The woman in the baker's at the end of our street had a theory. She was convinced that the pilots of planes approaching Heathrow were issued with an A to Z of London so that after passing over Kew Gardens they could perfect their final approach on the runway by lining up along the white line in the middle of our road.

The woman in the baker's at the end of our street had a theory. She was convinced that the pilots of planes approaching Heathrow were issued with an A to Z of London so that after passing over Kew Gardens they could perfect their final approach on the runway by lining up along the white line in the middle of our road.

Talbot Road in Isleworth had a number of things to recommend it. But being on the flight path for what was then proudly proclaimed to be the world's busiest airport was not one of them. The planes lined up in the sky like items on an invisible conveyor belt and roared over every 90 seconds.

"Oh you get used to the planes," said the people from whom we bought the house, pretty much as we said to the folk who bought it from us. And indeed you did.

In the summer, when the windows were open, you got used to watching the telly with the remote in one hand so you could tweak up the volume in competition with the aircraft above. Sitting in the garden it became quite entertaining to read the numbers on the aircraft wings and fuselage as they screamed overhead. There was even the wild Sunday afternoon alcohol-induced fantasy among local residents – in the good old days before such a rhapsody would be construed as utterly tasteless – about having a whip-round to buy a Sam 7 to frighten the screamers out of the sky to give us a few hours' peace.

The baker's shop is long gone. Which is probably just as well. For I'm not sure the much-suffering staff would have coped with the news about terminal five and the prospect of an extra 30 million passengers a year. It will get worse, as it always has.

Years later, after living out of the flight path, I moved back into it, albeit further east, into the posher reaches of Mortlake, over which the planes flew higher. There I discovered the old undertakings about "no night flights" had been shattered along with the local residents' sleep; the first "dawn flight" roared overhead at 4.40am every day.

Which is why the victims of Heathrow's noise pollution will be uncheered by the undertakings given by Stephen Byers yesterday about limiting the increase in the number of flights to a mere 20,000 a year over current levels. After all, when permission was given to build terminal four in 1982, locals were told by the government that this would be the last expansion of Heathrow and a limit was imposed on the number of flights – to 275,000 a year. The limit was breached within months and today there are 465,000 flights a year in and out of Heathrow.

Few people who live in the shadow of the planes expect anything different this time. Indeed all the longest public inquiry in British history has achieved for most is a further undermining of confidence in the inquiry process. (Which will, of course, only strengthen the Government's determination to abolish them in favour of something more streamlined and modern.)

There were protests about greenhouse gases and global warming, about the hidden subsidies to the air industry concealed in the lack of tax on aircraft fuel, about noise pollution, about the human right to a good night's sleep, about how Heathrow's existing terminals would be less crowded if the airport's operator BAA gave over less space to luxury shopping outlets. There were even last-minute post-11 September admonitions about the dangers of even more planes over what is probably the most built-up flight path in the world (thanks to the prevailing westerly winds most planes have to come in by traversing all of greater London from the east).

It was, as might have been expected, to no avail, when faced with a government transfixed by the headlights of the juggernaut of progress. Any bets on how long it will be before they need a third runway?

Anyway, I found a solution. I moved to Manchester.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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