475,000 Takeoffs and Landings a Year
The Summer Games will bring 4,000 additional aircraft to London's airports. Find out what it takes to keep Heathrow running smoothly on a normal day.
- By Michael Milstein
- Air & Space magazine, January 2007
(Page 4 of 5)
“You have to time the ringing of the bell,” she says one summer morning. “If you ring it when an airplane goes over, nobody hears it.” The whirlwind-like vortex from a passing airplane shattered tiles on the roof of the school’s kitchen. Sometimes vortices suck the shingles off roofs like a vacuum. Heathrow confirmed 102 “vortex strikes” on nearby buildings in the last fiscal year. Whenever this happens, the airport sends workers out to the damaged properties to fasten each shingle down with metal clips.
While airplanes have grown quieter, the number of flights to and from Heathrow has nearly doubled in the last 25 years—like a shift, locals say, from an occasional truck passing your window to constant traffic.
Noise is loud enough to irritate at least 300,000 people, the government says. Studies in nearby neighborhoods have found the noise impairs schoolchildren’s reading comprehension and memory. In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the rights of the airport’s neighbors to peaceful sleep had been violated. The ruling was later reversed, but the airport now offers neighbors up to about $24,000—depending on the value of their home—to move away.
Tension over airport noise, mounting for decades, has brought Heathrow under some of the tightest noise restrictions in the world. Pilots descend toward the airport on a smooth trajectory, rather than dropping in stair steps from one level altitude to the next. In the continuous-descent approach, as it’s known, pilots do not gun the engines to level off along the way, and airplanes remain farther above homes—cutting noise roughly in half. Unlike many U.S. airports, Heathrow is privately owned, and its noise strategies are distinctly free-market. The louder an airplane, the higher its landing fees.
Computers linked to air traffic control radar track each airplane, and pilots who do not follow the rules get a talking-to from airport managers. Microphones at the end of runways track noise, and each airplane that breaks the limits gets fined up to $2,000.
Rules tighten at night, when the noisiest aircraft are banned entirely: Only about 16 airplanes are permitted to land or take off between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m., and the noisier they are, the fewer are allowed. Sometimes early airplanes circle in the sky until the curfew lifts.
Manufacturers design airplanes with Heathrow in mind. Airbus worked over the engines and wings of its double-deck A380 to make sure it would meet Heathrow’s noise rules. Boeing guarantees its new 747-800 will fly quietly enough to be allowed in and out of Heathrow at night.
Airliners at Heathrow take off from only one runway while landing on the other, lending a semblance of order to the place. At 3 p.m. each day, they switch—landing on the one they took off from in the morning. It takes air traffic controllers about a half-hour to orchestrate the switch. With some exceptions, depending on the prevailing winds, it gives people living at each end of the runway half a day of relative peace and quiet.
Airport managers and airlines also want to start landing and taking off on both runways at the same time, which would let controllers put airplanes closer together and squeeze more in. They also want that third runway.
Current runway limits push airlines toward more profitable big airplanes that fly greater distances, leaving less runway space for shorter connecting flights. The solution, they say, is a new runway for the smaller airplanes that fly short routes, freeing the main runways for big ones. But that fix means the airport would reach beyond the façade of airport hotels and rental-car lots that surround it to take over towns to the north where “No third runway” signs outnumber flags supporting Britain’s World Cup soccer team.