It’s over 25 years since Canadian mining executive, Jim Cooney, coined the phrase “Social Licence to Operate” that has become a rallying cry for progressive businesses, nowhere more so than in airports.
CEOs implicitly understand that their future success hinges on developing and nurturing their SLO and that the biggest threat comes from community concern about aircraft noise.
The aviation industry has long understood the importance of reducing aircraft noise.
The first ICAO recommended practices in 1971 heralded an era of ongoing improvements that have delivered aircraft that are up to 75% quieter than 50 years ago.
Quieter aircraft, improved procedures, sound insulation and land use planning have achieved substantial reductions in noise exposure in parallel with aviation delivering huge increases in capacity.
Better understanding of annoyance
For decades, aviation noise management strategies have been founded on the premise that community annoyance is directly linked to the level of noise exposure. However, if annoyance was that simple, we should have seen substantial reductions in community complaints at airports with shrinking noise contours.
At London Heathrow, for example, the number of people exposed to more than a 57dB noise level has fallen by over 60% in the last 20 years, however, it is hard to argue that community annoyance has reduced.
This partial ‘decoupling’ of community annoyance from noise exposure is leading many progressive aviation noise thinkers to carefully examine other factors at play.
For while noise exposure remains an important factor, it is clear that annoyance can be significantly magnified by community expectations, perceptions of openness, transparency and fairness; whether stakeholders feel engaged in decision-making processes with their input fairly considered.
It’s also becoming clear that some past practices have played a role in fuelling annoyance, often doing more harm than good.
Publishing future noise contours showing little change has masked the personal reality and set unrealistic expectations. Residents are unlikely to notice the subtle reduction in noise from each flight, however they will certainly notice the increased numbers. It’s no wonder residents feel misled and annoyed.
Targeting annoyance magnifiers
Technology has long played a pivotal role in driving down noise exposure and will continue to do so. Now a new generation of technology driven solutions is emerging to target annoyance magnifiers.
Openness and transparency sit at the core, with a plethora of online portals emerging to help residents understand airport operations and issues such as where planes fly and why, how the weather affects operations and the choices controllers have to get the aircraft in and out while keeping the system safe.
Visitor centres, online tools, apps and social media are increasingly being used to create engaging environments to reach more people and foster mutual understanding.
Technology is being used explain initiatives to reduce noise exposure and demonstrate the results being achieved. Explaining fly quiet programmes and showing how operational rules are enforced can go a long way to building trust that an airport is serious about its noise impact.
Indeed, residents can now use online tools and apps to identify particular aircraft of interest and check whether they are following the rules.
Explaining change is also key, with visual and acoustic simulators being used to explain the future in language that is meaningful and helps set realistic expectations.
Technology is also transforming traditional counting and reporting of complaints, helping to identify trends and unpack underlying annoyance drivers to better target improvement initiatives and ensure that unrealistic hopes are faced honestly.
The path forward
Community concern about aircraft noise will remain a fundamental constraint on the industry’s ability to meet the growing demand for air travel.
It’s clear that noise exposure is a major contributor to annoyance, but a growing body of experience shows that there are many other factors at play. Importantly, many of these factors are more amenable to constructive action than is the challenge of reducing the noise exposure.
Ultimately each society must negotiate its own balance – the point where it decides that the benefits of aviation are in balance with its impacts. To succeed, it is essential that the facts are clear, the debate is informed and that all voices are heard.
New technology focused on reducing annoyance magnifiers is playing a key role in helping to find that balance.