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Airports across the world are actively working to reduce their noise footprint and engaging with their communities to create environmental capacity, writes Envirosuite’s senior aviation specialist, Matt Mills-Brooks.

There are two types of constraints on airport growth, physical capacity, which relates to the limits imposed by the runway, terminal, security or in the case of London Heathrow even the tunnel that provides access to Terminals 2 and 3.

And, environmental capacity, which relates to the local community’s acceptance of the airport’s current operation, growth or expansion plans and the resulting impact on where they live.

Environmental capacity exists at almost every airport around the world, but the limit imposed by it varies.

Whilst the physical capacity is known, it can be measured and addressed through the master planning process, environmental capacity is different. It is difficult to measure community acceptance, and, it can vary over time, on occasions changing quickly following high publicity.

This presents a unique risk to airports as airspace differs from other forms of transport as it is not a physical asset, which has to be dismantled to remove, and as a result, restrictions can be imposed quickly.

Once implemented these are almost impossible to remove. Sydney is a good example where the curfew restrictions initially imposed following the opening of the third runway remain in place despite suggestions to remove them, even from parts of the Federal Government.

To manage this unique risk, the process of noise management has evolved over the years, broadly following the ICAO balanced approach. At the same time airports have invested heavily in community engagement to build understanding and acceptance of noise.

Over the last 50 years the net result is airports seeing large reductions in the size of noise contours, despite the industry now being over 10 times larger.

However, whilst these programmes have delivered reductions, we are now seeing a disconnect. Reducing noise is not resulting in an increase in community acceptance and thus environmental capacity.

Michael Huerta, the previous administrator of the US’s Federal Aviation Administration, noted that “annoyance is now at the levels that they were in the early 1970s, when aircraft were a lot louder and the impacts were much more widespread”.

Research studies are noting the same trend – we are becoming more sensitive to aviation noise. And although noise is a common complaint, non-acoustic factors are important and can account for around 80% of the overall annoyance.

Internationally, airports have already experienced reducing environmental capacity and in response have sought to adapt and evolve.

Most of the adaptation has occurred across Europe and the Americas where environmental capacity is particularly challenging. In the Asia-Pacific region environmental capacity is not acute, however, challenges in accessing information and data in the public domain may drive this conclusion.

Despite this, there are airports which are adapting. Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, for example, is reviewing how it reports and manages aircraft noise.

Incheon Airport compliments its noise insulation and air conditioning installation programme with a specific non-acoustic programme. It includes investing in the local community through educational programmes, senior citizen support and job creation. All aiming to address non-acoustic factors by positioning the airport as a good neighbour.

Taoyuan International Airport has also sought to be a good neighbour and, since 2018, has paid compensation to local residents affected by noise, with the fund generated by fees levied on airlines with those operating noisier aircraft paying more.

Brisbane Airport’s strategy to help deliver its soon to open second runway was to use a combination of a mobile community information centre – that attended regular events and could be requested to attend community events – and a new web-based tool that shows current and future flight paths alongside noise data.

Both allowed it to minimise engagement barriers, share data in a transparent way, and engage with a wider demographic.


Despite the current market conditions, long-term growth is predicted in the Asia-Pacific region and, as developments continue, environmental capacity concerns are starting to emerge and these could grow, potentially quickly.

In preparation, best practice implemented at the international airports experiencing environmental capacity constraints could be explored.

At London Gatwick, a new independent engagement board was implemented. It took collaboration to a new level, involving local community stakeholders directly at the heart of the noise reduction in some of the busiest airspace in the world.

Whilst the board at Gatwick is a good example of collaborative working with the community, it has arguably faced the common challenge of any engagement activity. Which is being able to involve a sufficiently broad spectrum of the local community.

Especially important when considering non-acoustic factors which can be driven by a wide range of socio-economic factors within the local community.

Toronto Pearson explored an interesting solution using a citizens refence panel, formed by randomly selecting individuals who had expressed an interest in joining the board, but in such a way that the local demographics and areas impacted by aircraft noise were represented.

The panel was provided with a basic introduction to the airport, regulations and best practice. It heard from community groups, elected officials and industry stakeholders to identify recommendations for sustainable growth for the airport and region. The process empowered the local community.

London Heathrow, like Brisbane, sought to minimise engagement barriers, and by using new technology, the airport sought to provide tailored information about their expansion plans using a resident’s location.

A simple, but very powerful idea. Prior to this, in order to determine how the change may have impacted a location, the resident would need to visit a consultation event and/or review a large document. Whilst the current legal appeal raises uncertainty, the tailoring approach was an interesting solution and certainly one to watch closely.

In summary, environmental capacity will remain difficult to measure. But solutions are being explored, and even if it is too early to understand if these programmes are delivering effective results, they are the first step to managing environmental capacity.

The Asia-Pacific region is now actively considering emerging best practice in preparation for environmental capacity constraints that are emerging as the region develops. This is especially important as the market expands and airports seek to increase physical capacity to meet the growth in demand.

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