Some sky (where planes go)
Older readers may recall the time when the arrival of ‘the plane’ caused mucho excitement. Especially for a very small man in a white suit living on Fantasy Island*. With such excitement at the sight of a single plane, imagine what our little friend Tattoo would have done had he lived in Twickenham. He’d have gone bloody mental that’s what he’d have done. But what about if he’d lived round here? What about that, eh?

The flip side of such high drama at the approach of a single plane is the constant drone of engine noise for anyone living in the vicinity of a modern airport. But some people even like that kind of thing – plane spotters. We’re mostly talking men with ‘mushroom’ coloured anoraks, who live with their mothers and for whom the phrase, “and he seemed such a nice, quiet man” will make the newspapers at some point in the future. Let’s call this group “the nerds”. Bizarrely, we need more nerds. Here’s why…

You may be aware that Heathrow Airport are currently conducting runway trials. Perhaps it’s their revenge for having the third runway kicked into the long grass by the coalition government. OK, perhaps it isn’t revenge but it does stem from a government review and it’s all related to the same issue: capacity. Two runways + loads of planes = problems. Heathrow are trying to find ways to use the runways and airspace in a “more efficient and flexible way”. But could that efficiency and flexibility lead to more disruption for residents and, over time, more flights?

At the moment Heathrow alternates its two runways between take off and landing duties (obviously). Which runways get used and in which direction is based on a schedule that designed to give residents some respite from day long noise and which is also determined by wind direction and the sinister sounding but probably lovely “Cranford Agreement”. Borrrrinnng! But important.

When things get busy, delayed departures on the tarmac and arriving planes stacked up over London costs time and money. The airport has an option to invoke procedures which override its usual alternate runway thingy and allow both runways to be used for landings to clear the backlog.

The Heathrow trials are running over several months and lower the threshold at which these procedures can be invoked. It will also look at other options to increase flexibility and reduce delays. The first trial began on 1 November and will end on 29 February 2012. A second trial will cover July to September of next year. According to the airport, this will improve airport efficiency, reduce flight delays (and fuel burnt circling London) and generally keep things ticking along nicely. There will be no increase in flights, just better management of those flights. Tick. That sounds good. But this flexibility may also lead to a loss of respite (i.e. more noise) for some residents. Not so good. It could mean longer stints of putting up with take-off or landing sessions and greater unpredictability in knowing what to expect when. Although the trials will not see a change to flight numbers, if BAA can find ways of pushing planes through the airport faster then presumably they’d be lobbying for an increase in flights at some point in the future. Third runway? Who needs that?

And THAT is why we need more nerds. Apart from the general irritation of plane noise it’s actually quite difficult to assess whether things are better or worse for you unless you actually prick up your ears, take notice and record it. And if you think there have been a lot of planes taking off and banking over Twickenham recently (and it does seem like it doesn’t it, especially now we’ve put the idea into your head) then can you be sure that it would not have been the same without the trial? No you can’t. It could just be the weather and the wind direction. Nerds would understand this. Nerds could take notes on it.

There is a strong argument which says, “don’t live near an airport if you don’t like planes”. But it’s also important to remember that Spanish owners of Heathrow don’t have an automatic right to determine the noise levels that the residents of west London get to enjoy, there is a wider debate to be had in which all affected parties should be represented, provide feedback and get involved. So, make sure you have your say. Even the nerds.

* Heathrow video of current operations and the trial
* Richmond Council page on how to feedback / complain on the trial
* BBC story
* HACAN Briefing Note
* Airport Watch Item
* Heathrow Airport official information
* Background to the crap TV series “Fantasy Island”