Michael McCormack’s (Un)Fairness Principle

Current airport operations in Australia are built on a breathtakingly simple—and ridiculous—proposition: that it’s “fair” that we should suffer aircraft noise “equally”.

It’s a wonderful piece of logical sleight-of-hand to suggest that it’s somehow fair and egalitarian for a particular heavy industry to be allowed to spread noise pollution over all Brisbane suburbs “equally”.

That’s not the only illusion we’re being asked to believe, however. It’s also being suggested to us by the government that this egalitarian “principle” comes to us from the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, the global United Nations peak body.

Neither of these things is true, and this is a shameful exercise in deception by the Minister, the Department and the commercial companies profiting from that noise pollution—the airports and airlines.

Here is that claim in black and white, in an excerpt from the Government’s official principles “Environmental Principles and Procedures for Minimising the Impact of Aircraft Noise” (emphasis mine):

Principle 3: Noise exposure should be fairly shared whenever possible

Principle 4: No suburb, group or individual can demand or expect to be exempt from aircraft noise exposurei

At first glance it’s innocuous, but consider for a moment if we tried to apply this same twisted logic to the noise pollution and traffic pollution generated by some other industries, for example manufacturing.

Imagine the reaction if the government announced:

We’re proud to announce the establishment of a new oil refinery and heavy foundry for Brisbane. We believe the noise, traffic and pollution from these new industries should be fairly shared, so rather than establish them in Lytton or Pinkenba we are going to build them in the residential precincts of Samford Valley, because no suburb can expect to be exempt from industrial noise, and Samford Valley has unfairly enjoyed peace, quiet and a green environment for far too long.

Does that sound crazy? It is. Does it sound like a principle for “minimising the impact of industrial noise”? It doesn’t.

We’re all familiar with the basic town-planning principles that segregate industrial areas from residential areas, and shops and businesses from quiet residential streets. It’s a pattern we take for granted because it’s how we design, plan and want our society to operate. Here’s an idealised diagram of that town plan:

What would that plan look like if we applied the same planning principles to our town as those espoused for airports by the Honourable Michael McCormack, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications?

Consider how our town plan would look if we applied these same principles to locating light and heavy industry in our town, if we “fairly shared” noise pollution, and refused to “exempt” any suburb from that pollution.

This is crazy. This is “fair sharing” of noise pollution. This is ensuring that no suburb is “exempt from truck noise exposure”. That no suburb can be safe from the trucks rolling through the streets delivering raw materials to the factories that are indiscriminately—but “fairly”—sited in every suburb, and more trucks picking up products to ship around the country.

But you can pretend that people have agreed to this plan if you ask them “Would you rather industrial noise pollution next door, or somewhere else?” It’s a trick question, of course, because the correct answer is “Who said that industrial noise pollution was permitted in residential suburbs? We didn’t agree to that!” However most people will automatically answer “Somewhere else”.

No citizen in their right mind would agree to a town plan based on the principle that there is nowhere that you can buy a home and be sure it won’t be next to a factory operating at all hours of the day and night, or that you can’t escape the noise of trucks roaring by periodically, possibly as often as every few minutes, for hours on end.

No citizen in their right mind would buy a home knowing that there’s no guarantee that a crash-repair shop or foundry might be built next door, or that, without warning or permission, semi-trailers might start driving past at two o’clock in the morning.

No citizen in their right mind would deliberately seek out a quiet, peaceful location to bring up their family, only to be told some time in the future that in the interests of “fairness” the Federal government has decided to allow hundreds of planes to fly overhead—where previously there were none.

Yet that is exactly what the Minister and the Department have published as basic principles. For what? For “minimising the impact of aircraft noise”.

Ridiculous.

What they’ve actually done is given the airport owners and the airlines carte blanche to add new flight paths to existing airports wherever and whenever they like, and to disguise destroying previously peaceful suburbs as an exercise in “fairness”.

This is a monstrous distortion of “fairness”, intended to completely bypass any discussion about the noise itself, or the other obvious “fairness”—that when people buy houses they should have some certainty about their environment and their future, some expectation that an area designated as residential does not, overnight, transform into light or heavy industrial on the grounds of “fairness”.

Consider: if you buy a house nearer to an industrial estate, you do it knowingly. If you buy a house near an airport, or under an existing flight path, you do it knowingly. You understand the pros and cons, and the trade-offs. And, equally, if you buy a house in a quiet suburb, a suburb that has been planned and designed from the start to segregate homes from shops and main roads and factories, then you reasonably expect that a main road and a factory won’t suddenly be constructed next door with the reason given as “fairness” to people who chose, deliberately, to live closer to those areas.

The government and airline industry want us fighting the wrong battle

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this unexamined “fairness” doctrine is that, if you accept the warped logic behind it then you completely derail any examination of the basic question as to whether new factories should be built in the suburbs, and instead start fights amongst different suburbs in the town about who should suffer next, or whether they’re suffering enough. It turns the whole notion of creating a peaceful, enjoyable town or city upside down, and into an argument about whether everybody is suffering equally. Which suits the polluters, of course, but not the town.

It’s also an argument based on a false dichotomy—that the noise either has to be over you, or over someone else. It’s built on the unspoken assumption that there will be more noise, that there has to be more noise, so it’s hardly surprising when any reasonable person is asked “Would you like more plane noise over you, or somewhere else?” that they would answer “Somewhere else”.

Implicit in that answer is another solution, of course—build the new airport somewhere else, away from all of the peaceful suburbs that have been there long before the airport—but that’s not the answer the airport owners and airlines want.

This “somewhere else” answer isn’t a selfish response, either. It’s not a case of NIMBY—Not In My Back Yard—at all, because there is a large and growing body of evidence around the deleterious health effects, both physical and psychological, of exposure to aircraft noiseii,iii,iv,v

The same simple logic that separates heavy machinery and quiet suburban streets in every town plan is the logic that supports the answer “Not over where I live, please”.

So it comes as no surprise when a 2010 Senate Enquiry into the effectiveness of AirServices Australia’s management of aircraft noise makes the finding that (emphasis mine): 

4.2 During the inquiry, the committee heard that ensuring the fair and equitable distribution of noise was a primary concern for communities and residents around Australia.vi

It’s easy to get this answer if you ask the question “Do you want more noise in your suburb?” instead of the more fundamental question “Should airports be allowed to expand by flying planes over more suburbs, in fact over each and every suburb?”.

From the Government’s Mouth to Brisbane Airport Corporation’s Ear

It’s also easy to trace the path of this “fairness” “principle” from its original, unchallenged assertion by AirServices Australia in 1997 to an almost exact repetition by the Brisbane Airport Corporation in their Master Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the now newly opened runway at Brisbane airport.

In their “Principles for the Development of Flight path” they stated:

10) Noise should be fairly shared whenever possible.

11) No suburb, group or individual can demand or expect to be exempt from aircraft noise exposure.vii

Look familiar? Now a statement of “principle” from the government has turned into an argument by the airport for creating new flight paths. It has to be a good argument, because they’re applying the government’s own principles, correct?

It’s now the foundation stone for building new flight paths over suburbs where planes never flew previously; in reality not to “fairly share” the suffering, but really to allow a greater volume of flights than the previous flight paths could accommodate. 

This never had anything to do with “fairness”. It was only ever about allowing a noise polluting industry to operate heavy machinery in previously quiet suburban streets, streets where the home owners never expected to live next to heavy machinery operating night and day.

This fiction that adding noise is being done in order to reduce noise is continued in the BAC’s responses to the Master Plan, where they say (emphasis mine)

6.1.2 Fairer Sharing/Distribution of Movements on the Flight Paths
i) Alternate flight paths to provide respite
[…]
The NPR [New Parallel Runway] will provide a greater opportunity for noise sharing than currently possible.viii

This is an interesting way of saying “having two runways will allow us to fly more planes over more suburbs than we were allowed to before.”

No other heavy industry could even dream of getting away with this abuse of the peace and amenity of suburbs full of unsuspecting citizens, but you can’t blockade the sky, and the airport doesn’t have to resume land or build new highways, they just point the planes at you and ruin a suburb. In the name of “fairness”.

The Spurious ICAO Authority

If we track this ridiculous “principle” back to its source in the AirServices document we find that there is absolutely no justification provided. It’s supported by no argument, by no research, and by no precedent, which is hardly surprising given that it’s the exact opposite of all other town-planning principles. It cites no Australian authorities, legislation or power to impose this “principle”.

This isn’t the only document in which AirServices has published these principles, though. They’re back in a very similar form in another document by AirServices’ CEO “Airservices commitment to aircraft noise management“, like this (emphasis mine):

[…]

o during assessment of noise management proposals, consideration shall be given to whether concentration or noise sharing is more appropriate at the location[…]

o it is not possible to guarantee any suburb, group or individual exemption from aircraft noise exposureix

In this document the government, through AirServices, has tried to imply that these “principles” are in fact agreed, not just by Australia, but by all of the countries contributing to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the United Nations international agency. How do they do that? Well, they start off by saying (emphasis mine)

Our principles
To help us work towards achieving world’s best practice in aircraft noise management, we have identified five key areas […]
1. proactive community engagement, consultation and information 
2. collaborative stakeholder engagement within the aviation industry on aircraft noise
3. alignment of actions and processes to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Balanced Approach to Noise Management
4. innovation and technology development within Airservices and across the industry to reduce the impact of noise 
5. independent validation and international benchmarking of our processes and actions. 

Which sounds reasonable. Principles 1, 2, 4 and 5 clearly have nothing to do with “fair sharing” and “no exemptions”, so sharing and exemptions must be derived from Principle 3, the ICAO balanced approach. So what is the ICAO’s “Balanced Approach“? Here’s the ICAO’s own diagram:

These seem like an eminently sensible approach. Again, only element 3, noise abatement, has relevance to the principle of “fair sharing” and “no exemptions”, so what does the ICAO actually say about noise abatement?

In Resolution 1 of the ICAO 39th General Assembly, it says (emphasis mine)

The Assembly:
1. Declares […] In carrying out its responsibilities, ICAO and its Member State will strive to:
a) limit or reduce the number of people affected by significant aircraft noise;
b) limit or reduce the impact of aviation emissions on local air quality; and
c) limit or reduce the impact of aviation greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate;x

Nothing there about “fair sharing” and “no exemptions”. In fact, only a clear statement about reducing the number of people affected, not increasing it!

So how does Airservices claim to implement the ICAO Balanced Approach to Noise Management?

Well, in their document there’s a section entitled “Alignment to ICAO Balanced Approach to Noise Management”. Note the term “alignment”. 

What does it say? Amongst other things it says (emphasis mine)

Alignment to ICAO Balanced Approach to Noise Management
[…]
o during assessment of noise management proposals, consideration shall be given to whether concentration or noise sharing is more appropriate at the location
[…]
o it is not possible to guarantee any suburb, group or individual exemption from aircraft noise exposurexi

Do these look familiar? 

Do they bear any resemblance to the ICAO principles?

No, they don’t, despite Airservices attempting to imply that these principles are somehow “aligned” with the ICAO. In fact, the principle that increased noise should be distributed over a larger number of people, which is really what “noise sharing” amounts to, is the exact opposite of the very first ICAO principle regarding aircraft noise.

Further, the ICAO statements contain no reference whatsoever to guaranteeing, or refusing to guarantee, “exemption” from aircraft noise, and placing this statement in a section claiming alignment with ICAO principles is deliberately misleading. These bizarre principles are not only not aligned with the ICAO approach, they’re the opposite, but they’ve been placed in a section that implies they’re actually part of the global approach to this problem.

We don’t need an exemption, they should need permission

Also misleading is the very use of the word “exemption”, which implies a special permission not to suffer aircraft noise, while every resident’s right and expectation is that they do not suffer aircraft noise, or heavy industry noise, or air pollution, and so on.

We, as citizens and residents don’t require an exemption from a heavy industry deciding to pollute our residential suburb. They need permission to do that, and it’s clear from what has happened that individual residents and citizens have been given no say in the “permission” that has been granted to one particular industry to spread pollution in a way that’s totally at odds with every other real principle of fairness and town planning.

With two simple “principles” the government, and through them the airline industry, have successfully turned every genuine principle of town planning and procedural fairness on their heads for the benefit of the commercial operation of airports and airlines.

Shame on them, and shame on Michael McCormack for promoting this charade that increasing noise actually reduces noise, cloaked in the language of “fairness” and “exemption”, and foisted on entire cities without the right to vote or veto its imposition purely for the benefit of commercial interests and to the considerable detriment of many, many residents.

We don’t have to accept this cynical abuse of our homes and amenities and our lives for commercial gain, and we’re not going to.

References

i “Environmental Principles and Procedures for Minimising the Impact of Aircraft Noise” 21 (n.d.): 1.

ii “Shannon – The Health Effects of Environmental Noise.Pdf,” accessed October 18, 2020, https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/A12B57E41EC9F326CA257BF0001F9E7D/$File/health-effects-Environmental-Noise-2018.pdf.

iii V Sparrow et al., “Aviation Noise Impacts White Paper,” Noise & Health 19, no. 87 (March 2017): 18, https://doi.org/10.4103/nah.NAH_104_16.

iv World Health Organization, “Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region (2018),” 2018, p61, https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/noise/publications/2018/environmental-noise-guidelines-for-the-european-region-2018.

v Jangu Banatvala, Martin Peachey, and Thomas Münzel, “The Harms to Health Caused by Aviation Noise Require Urgent Action,” The BMJ, June 18, 2019, https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2019/06/18/the-harms-to-health-caused-by-aviation-noise-require-urgent-action/.

vi Commonwealth Parliament, “Inquiry into the Effectiveness of Airservices Australia’s Management of Aircraft Noise,” text, 35, Australia, accessed October 17, 2020, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Rural_and_Regional_Affairs_and_Transport/Completed_inquiries/2008-10/aircraft_noise/index.

vii “BNR_EIS_MDP_D3_Airspace_Architecture.Pdf,” D3-38, accessed October 17, 2020, https://www.bne.com.au/sites/default/files/docs/BNR_EIS_MDP_D3_Airspace_Architecture.pdf.

viii “BNR_Supplementary_Report_VolumeD_Responses.Pdf,” p162, accessed October 17, 2020, https://www.bne.com.au/sites/default/files/docs/BNR_Supplementary_Report_VolumeD_Responses.pdf.

ix “Staib – Aircraft Noise Management.Pdf,” p7, accessed October 17, 2020, https://www.airservicesaustralia.com/wp-content/uploads/Aircraft_Noise_Management_WEB.pdf.

x “Resolution_A39_1.Pdf,” accessed October 17, 2020, https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/Documents/Resolution_A39_1.PDF.

xi “Staib – Aircraft Noise Management.Pdf,” p7, accessed October 17, 2020, https://www.airservicesaustralia.com/wp-content/uploads/Aircraft_Noise_Management_WEB.pdf.