Come SEP23, East Midlands Airport (EMA) will be needing to hand its new 5-year Noise Action Plan to the British Government, ready to take effect in 2024. The Manchester Airports Group (MAG) member is currently seeking feedback and input from the public and its stakeholders to its draft Noise Action Plan, until 31JUL23. One of the main measures it contains: a night flight ban on noisy planes in the decibel rating categories QC4, QC8 and QC16; ergo planes flying at noise levels higher than 96 decibels.
“East Midlands Airport is the UK’s busiest ‘pure’ cargo airport and second only to London Heathrow in terms of total cargo,” is how the airport markets itself – not that you’d recognize the cargo aspect from its passenger-centric LinkedIn page, mind. Nevertheless, with an annual freight capacity of 450,000 tons a year (400,155 tons of cargo and mail were handled in 2022), and predicted to almost double its current results by 2040 – in other words, reach 700,000 tons – East Midlands is a key hub for DHL, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and Royal Mail.
All through the night
Given the strong integrator and mail focus, the hub is perfect for ecommerce and express freight, it offers 24/7 operations, is capable of “accommodating the largest freight and passenger aircraft,” and boasts “ample room to grow”, cargo-wise. Yet, these largest freight aircraft, particularly if they are old and not quite as discreet in their approach as their more modern peers, may well have seen their last night-time landings at EMA if the proposed ban comes into effect on 01JAN24. Night-time is defined as between the hours of 23:00 and 07:00 – a time window which sees 45 % of all EMA flights take-off and land.
“The airport’s night operations bring both economic and social benefits to the East Midlands region and the wider UK. However, we recognize that night-time noise from aircraft operations is often the most intrusive. Our night noise controls are intended to strike a fine balance between the economic and social benefits a thriving airport provides and the disturbance which can be caused by night flights,” the draft Noise Action Plan states.
Two people with a lot of time on their hands
The 105-page draft Noise Action Plan is a highly transparent, informative, and honest read, and I’ll admit to finding the information on page 72 rather amusing and reminiscent of Victor Meldrew in ‘One Foot in the Grave’ (though I can understand that not being able to sleep at night is not a laughing matter. That said, EMA does heavily support its neighbors with grants to soundproof their houses.) A graph clearly shows the huge increase in noise complaints in the past 5 years. Whilst 2019 registered the lowest number of complaints, at under 500 in that year, 2022 exploded to 5,500. However, reading the accompanying text, you learn that “in 2022, two individual complainants recorded 75% of the complaints we received. Figure 22 shows the number of complaints received over the last five years, with regular complaints from these individuals displayed separately.”
Two problem areas
“Our analysis of the noise complaints received since 2020 identified two key issues. These are the use of Boeing 747-400 aircraft at night, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and training flights using commercial jet aircraft. In 2021, flights operated by Boeing 747-400 aircraft generated 522 complaints – more than 53 times the number of complaints per movement than flights operated by Boeing 777 aircraft, another large aircraft used on long-haul cargo routes. In 2022, training flights generated 322 complaints. Although training flights made up 3.5% of flights from the airport, they generated 6% of the complaints we received,” the report details.
The pandemic is to blame
Things at EMA were pretty rosy, pre-pandemic – mainly because there were no B747 or similarly loud and old aircraft landing at EMA during the night in 2018. Yet, with the start of the pandemic, this all changed: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, operations at the airport were significantly impacted. Increased demand for air freight, combined with a decrease in capacity to carry cargo on passenger aircraft, led to a rapid increase in freight traffic at the airport in 2020 and 2021. Due to the nature of express freight, much of this traffic was carried during the night. To meet demand, and with a limited availability of aircraft, airlines needed to use older, larger aircraft, including Boeing 747-400s which are QC4 rated on departure.” That said, the report also points out that, though its ban will include QC8 and QC16 ratings, no such aircraft have landed in the night during the past few years. Instead, the deployment of quieter aircraft has increased, and “following intensive engagement with our airline partners, we have been pleased to see a reduction in the number of Boeing 747-400 aircraft operating at night. Additionally, we welcome the decision by operators of other QC4 rated aircraft to withdraw these aircraft from service at East Midlands Airport.”
Pay for disrupting the peace
Nevertheless, there will be fines for all airlines not meeting the noise reduction requirements: EMA has laid out that noise levels should not exceed 55 decibels within a 16km radius of the airport between 23:00 and 07:00. Any airlines not meeting “Chapter 14” noise standards could face fines. A look at the figures shows that this could affect 79% of all night flights, since only 21% met the standard in 2022. Penalties for aircraft that are too noisy to fly at night will be paid to the airport's community fund, benefitting its surrounding neighbors. “We believe the impacts to airlines of this ban will be minimal, but it will have a benefit to communities that are overflown by ensuring these noisiest movements cannot take place at night,” the report concludes.
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