Before And After – Aircraft Noise

Both these images were taken from the same apartment, with the same amount of zoom. The upper shot shows how planes used to look from our home. The lower shot shows how they now look. I can’t easily depict the difference in noise, but I’m sure you can imagine it.

What follows is a letter I’ve sent to our local Federal MP, Mr. Trevor Evans.

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Monday, October 5th, 2020

Unreasonable aircraft noise over Teneriffe

Dear Mr. Evans,

I write to request your help as my local member with the issue of drastically increased aircraft noise in my home, caused by the unilateral addition of new flight paths from Brisbane airport. I read recently in “My Village News1” that you have been active in petitioning CASA to address some aspects of this problem, and I’d like to thank you for that, but encourage you to do more.

As I know you’re busy let me first summarise my request:

• Buying a home is the largest and most important financial decision most Australians make; being forced to sell and buy unexpectedly can be emotionally and financially crippling, particularly for retirees. Not many Australians willingly buy a house under a flight path, and I bought one because it wasn’t under a flight path—until now. Having to sell my home because planes are suddenly and unexpectedly flying over me night and day is an unreasonable and avoidable blow: mentally, physically and financially.

• When airports reach their planned operating capacity—something anticipated decades before—a reasonable solution is not to suddenly start flying planes over long established suburbs that existed before the airport was built, and for which overfly permission was never sought at the time the airport was approved and built. Yet that’s what has been done.

• The “community consultation” that forms the basis for arguments about “agreement” for this whole process is a sham; in reality affected home owners were given no enforceable rights in any of these decisions, including new flight paths. Worse, the information that was provided to us can now be proved to be incorrect and misleading, negating any dubious validity claimed for “consultation”. These decision were taken unfairly, based on incorrect information, and clearly without real regard for balancing community benefit and harm.

• It doesn’t have to be like this. The decision to build a second runway and its orientation were commercial decisions by the airport, not by the community, but now that the points of landing and takeoff are set as hard as the runway concrete there is still considerable flexibility in the choice of when, where and how planes approach and leave.

• This problem is only going to grow, and grow rapidly as airport operations return to and then exceed pre-Covid levels. It’s not going away. However, all the various bodies and authorities claim it’s not their problem. In the end it’s our elected representatives’ problem, and I’m asking for your help to fix it before it hits and stays on the front pages.

For me, as for most Australians, the purchase of a family home represents by far the largest and probably most important investment in our lives. It’s not a decision to be made lightly, and it’s certainly not a decision to be changed easily, cheaply, or lightly. Apart from the very large cost of the home itself, changing homes is associated with considerable additional costs such as stamp duty and agent commission which, by themselves, often add up to more than any other single expense we incur2.

As any home owner knows, the amount of due diligence possible and required before purchase is significant. Quite apart from the obvious criteria, such as pleasant location, proximity to transport, work, services, schools, shops, parks and so on, there are the equally important negative criteria: is my home on the plan for a new highway? Is my home part of a council drainage easement? Will the electricity authorities build a powerline over my home? Will my home flood? Is my home too close to a railway line or highway? And so on…

For most home owners the question of “quiet enjoyment”, as the lawyers describe it, extends beyond rail and road to the sky: is my home under a flight path? Will the roar of plane engines wake me at night, shake the house and contents and make conversation and entertainment intermittently impossible at all hours of the day and night? For the vast majority of Australians, given a choice, the obvious answer to that question is “No!”, and for reasons that are not just personal but scientifically and objectively inarguable3.

My answer to that question was, and is, unequivocally “No!”, but without any say in the matter the home I bought, the home I chose for its peace and quiet, the home I choose to live in, and the home that was not under a flight path when I bought it is now suddenly under a flight path I had no say in choosing – and which many are telling me I have no power to change.

Now I’m unexpectedly faced with two equally devastating choices: stay, and face the daily repeated stress of ever-increasing noise; or move, and suffer emotional and lasting financial damage. 

It’s not just me claiming there’s a problem in Brisbane—radio programs, TV current affairs, letters to the editor, and community petitions say the same—but nobody wants to be responsible. Suddenly there is an alphabet soup of organisations and bodies all claiming that it’s not specifically “their” problem—just mine. They include BAC, ASA, CASA, Qantas, Virgin, Pilots, AusALPA, and others. Each points at the others and says “it’s them”.

This cannot be right. It is certainly not fair or reasonable, and I refuse to believe that I’m powerless to alter it.

Trevor, nobody expects in a growing country like Australia or a growing city like Brisbane that things will remain the same. Growth inevitably brings change, and that change isn’t always welcome or of equal impact to all. We all understand that living in a society means that the good of all of us has to be balanced against the good of some of us, and that sometimes an overall good will involve some local harm. However in this case I am certain that balance hasn’t been achieved; in fact I don’t believe it has even been reasonably sought, and I’m appealing for your help to redress this.

When people buy houses under an established flight path and then subsequently complain about aircraft noise the very reasonable rejoinder is “you knew about the noise before you bought”. 

Unfortunately the obvious reverse isn’t true. 

When people deliberately buy houses in established suburbs that aren’t under a flight path and have never been under a flight path, the airport and regulators should reasonably be told “you can’t now start flying planes over there, for the simple reason that people bought houses there before you were flying”. Instead it appears that the airport and regulators can choose to establish new flight paths without any effective means for the directly affected residents to prevent it.

Having planes flying low over my home—not a handful, but tens or twenties or more per hour—where there were none before isn’t a minor inconvenience or annoyance, it’s a major upheaval to my physical and mental well-being and my way of life. As a pensioner, if it forces me to move—much against my will—it will not only cost me large, unplanned and unavoidable expenses, I may also find that the value of my property has been reduced by the airport’s unilateral actions, without any recompense whatsoever. 

This cannot be fair, and it cannot be right.

A quick review of the very long and tumultuous history of Sydney’s second airport will reveal that large numbers of people with established homes object violently to the idea that their quality of life and the value of their properties should be unilaterally diminished for the convenience or profit of an airline or an airport. When a new airport is built, one of the principle concerns is that it should allow for flight paths that won’t pose a problem for housing, both now and into the future, and corridors and buffer zones are specifically set up to prevent the entirely predictable problem of aircraft noise over homes.

If, as has happened in Sydney, the existing airport reaches its planned and foreseeable operating capacity the solution is not to suddenly create new corridors or to allow noise at 2 a.m., destroying the amenity of tens of thousands of residents; the answer is to find ways to use the existing corridors, or failing that, build a new airport, using the same principles as before. This balances the convenience of the flying public—ten or twenty minutes longer travel to the airport—with ruining the lives of tens of thousands of innocent residents who, in many cases, quite probably bought where they did to avoid this problem: not the problem of ten or twenty minutes of occasional extra travel, but of day-long and day-in, day-out significant noise and disruption where there was none before.

This isn’t balance, and this isn’t fair.

However in the case of Brisbane airport when an expansion in operations was planned, rather than continuing to use the established corridors, the airport, and by extension the airlines, chose to arbitrarily establish new flight corridors over long-established suburbs where none had existed previously.

This cannot be right.

When major infrastructure like an airport is built it isn’t just built for today, it’s built for an operational lifetime, for decades if not longer, and for projected growth. No reasonable person would agree to a plan for an airport that says “we’ll be very careful about not flying planes over established suburbs now, but some time in the future if we want to expand we’ll just arbitrarily start flying over suburbs that have been there even longer than the airport”. I’d argue that no reasonable person would agree to building an airport on that basis in the first place, however that is precisely and exactly what Brisbane airport, the airlines and the Federal authorities have now done.

This cannot be right.

I know that the immediate response from BAC, ASA and the others is to say that there was an extensive period and process of “community consultation”4. Very bluntly put this is just smoke and mirrors, for the following five simple and irrefutable reasons:

1 Affected residents were never given a vote, much less the power of veto over any proposal, so this “consultation” was in reality nothing more than a Public Relations exercise and a means for subsequent claims that the community has “had a say” and somehow “agreed” to the outcome.

2 The “consultation” process defined no powers for residents, or gave any guarantees of mechanisms by which any protests or concerns would change the outcome in any respect whatsoever. Pretending to listen to someone and then ignoring everything they say is not even “consultation”, and the result is certainly not “agreement”, much less “consensus” and certainly not “permission”.

3 Even if residents were “consulted” without any power to change the outcome, the definition of “affected residents” was based on information and assumptions that can now, empirically, be shown to have been wrong.

4 Moreover, the information provided to those “affected residents”, if not deliberately misleading can, again, be shown to be empirically incorrect and therefore as a consequence misleading anyway. It may simply be coincidence that all of the errors in the information provided tend to underestimate the scope, scale and impact of new operations, however whether this is by unhappy accident or deliberate design the consequence is that any community “permission” or “agreement” that the stakeholders might claim to possess, based as it is on incorrect and misleading information, is simply invalid.

5 The very significant financial and logistical decisions to build a second, parallel runway at Brisbane airport5 must have been made in the full knowledge that, for the planned level of operations now proposed, new flight logistics would have to be created. That means one of two things: 

a) either there are, in fact, no alternatives to the new flight paths now in operation, and the entire process of “consultation” has been window-dressing for a decision that was quietly made over twenty years ago, or 

b) alternatives exist to the current operational logistics, alternatives that may be less convenient or profitable for the commercial enterprises involved but which remove or significantly reduce the unreasonable stresses now being suffered by tens if not hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting residents whose lives have been seriously impacted.

The current situation is not one of residents’ making or choice, and certainly not one that we’ve agreed to. This cannot be right.

There is now a growing chorus of concerned residents in multiple electorates6—not just yours—protesting this problem. In fact, it seems to be more widespread than just Brisbane7, however that’s not my main concern right now. The Brisbane noise is all the more alarming given that Brisbane airport is currently operating at only a fraction of its usual capacity, and certainly much less than its projected capacity. If the noise now is causing so much dismay, just imagine the protest when the pandemic subsides and air traffic increases! Can I suggest that this is a problem that is going to escalate significantly, and would be much better addressed now than waiting for it to hit, and stay, on the front pages.

It’s clear that relevant residents’ concerns have elicited a confusing array of responses from the alphabet soup of responsible bodies, none of which seems to have sufficient authority or responsibility to affect any change to this situation.

This cannot be right.

Airservices Australia, for example, in a response to complaints, states “In Australia there are no regulations which specify a maximum, allowed level of aircraft noise. Airservices does not have any power of enforcement to cease an aircraft operating due to it’s (sic) noise impacts.” However we know that Airservices is responsible for Air Traffic Control, and through them, decisions regarding operational choice of flight paths, approaches and so on. So this answer, while possibly technically correct, is disingenuous and misleading and indicates a disturbing unwillingness to engage with real and widespread community concern. Ignoring this problem is not going to make it go away.

I’m not even going to address the various responses that say, one way or another, that aircraft have to alter their flight paths for “safety reasons”, and that “operational concerns” dictate where they fly. All of those responses are based on the disputed premise that it’s ok for them to be flying on that path in the first place, and that an occasional diversion or straying from agreed paths now becomes an excuse for repeated, regular violations.

All of which misses the basic point. It’s simply unbelievable that there is nobody in the country – up to and including Federal Parliament – who has the power to dictate where and when aircraft may fly. It’s simply unbelievable that anyone who wishes can build an airport wherever they choose, with a runway pointing wherever they like, and then invite aircraft to take off and land there while arbitrarily overflying cities and suburbs at any height they choose and at any time of day or night, and that any pilot can decide to fly wherever they choose “for operational or safety reasons”, and that nobody has the power to regulate, monitor or control it, or sanction those who break the rules.

That is clearly ridiculous. If, unbelievably, this really is the case then of course the Parliament can simply arrogate those powers, however I’m certain that those powers already exist.

Somebody must have the power to approve and regulate what has happened, and by extension somebody must have the power to change what is happening right now, both on an hourly or daily basis, and on a longer-term regulatory and policy basis. As my local member of Federal Parliament I believe that you are in the best position, both to identify the necessary body or bodies, and to advocate on behalf of your constituents that the current unjust and unreasonable situation be changed.

If the BAC made a unilateral commercial decision to increase revenue at the expense of large numbers of Brisbane residents who had no say, but who are now suffering the mental, physical and financial consequences, then the BAC should be directed to alter its operations. If that results in reduced revenue for the BAC that’s a commercial risk they knowingly undertook, unlike the serious impact being suffered by thousands of Brisbane residents on whom this outcome has been foisted for the BAC’s profit and convenience, an outcome in which they had no say and that was neither inevitable, reasonable nor fair.

If BAC is no longer in control of where planes using its runways take off and land then the authorities who have those powers are either abusing them, are failing to monitor or enforce limits that should be observed, or were granted those powers based on invalid assumptions and without the agreement or even reasonable notification of affected residents.

This cannot be right.

My understanding of the legislative and regulatory structures controlling this situation is that the Honourable Michael McCormack, MP, in his role as Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development is the ultimate authority and a member of your coalition government, so I’m asking you to use your best efforts and influence to work with him to address this problem.

Please, Trevor, help me to remove the aircraft from the skies low over my long-established suburb and my home, skies where they’ve never flown before and where I bought and settled, never expecting them to fly.

Thank you, and kind regards,

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1 “Evans attacks authorities on flight changes” https://myvillagenews.com.au/october-2020/ page 5 

2 For example, to sell then buy a $500,000 apartment will incur stamp duty and commission expenses of more than $30,000, a significant cost over and above the “neutral” transaction price; all money that must come from my pocket. 

3 For example, the Federal Department of Health report https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/A12B57E41EC9F326CA257BF0001F9E7D/$File/health-effects-Environmental-Noise-2018.pdf, or the ICAO sponsored report “Aviation Noise Impacts: State of the Science” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5437751/

4 https://www.bne.com.au/sites/default/files/docs/2020_Flight_Path_and_Aircraft_Noise_%20Booklet.pdf

5 https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/Completed_inquiries/1999-02/brisair/index

6 https://www.terributlermp.com/news/campaigns-issues/aircraft-noise-petition/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/2267224893494303

7 https://flightpathforum.org.au/