Flight numbers keep on rising

AIR traffic over Suffolk could double in the next two decades - thousands of more planes a week rumbling over communities of all sizes. RICHARD CORNWELL looks at how and why the number of jets in our skies has grown, and the way the authorities have allowed it to happen unchallenged.

AIR traffic over Suffolk could double in the next two decades - thousands of more planes a week rumbling over communities of all sizes. RICHARD CORNWELL looks at how and why the number of jets in our skies has grown, and the way the authorities have allowed it to happen unchallenged.

SKIES above part of Suffolk are like the Clapham junction of the air.

Some people claim not to notice the planes - but once you have heard them, you can't get them out of your head.

The airspace over Felixstowe, the twin Trimley villages, Shotley peninsula and countryside around west Ipswich has a constant dull rumble - the sound of jets arriving, passing over and leaving.

Some are inexplicably low - sometimes down to 7,000ft - and often these are outward-bound, with others passing on different levels on flightpaths in various directions to and from airports, with more zipping over, 30,000ft up, not even stopping on our shores.

Ten years ago, flights over the area were rare.

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Today, at peak times for arrivals and departures at Stansted, London City, Luton, Heathrow and Gatwick, they can be one every two minutes - the noise from each lasting up to 80 seconds.

The situation changed dramatically five years ago when airspace governed by the Clacton Beacon was altered to allow 35 per cent more planes to criss-cross the area.

Effectively, this was the result of the closure of the Bentwaters USAF air base, and reaction to a steep growth in air traffic which was creating bottlenecks in the skies further south.

The military use of the area had restricted the civilian use of the airspace. While many people say the American Tankbusters and fighter jets were noisier, they were not flying over at the same times on the same routes, hour after hour, day after day.

NATS' own maps show what happened when airspace was changed in 2004.

The flightpaths which went over the north Essex area were moved north, sending more of the planes navigating by the Clacton Beacon over the Felixstowe and Shotley peninsulas, and less over Clacton itself, creating space for reorganisation of flights around London and to cater for the boom in cheap air travel, the so-called flights to nowhere.

This was partly achieved by lowering the controlled airspace - creating more room for flights by permitting them to come down 5,000ft lower, allowing four to five more “decks” or levels.

Some observers reckon Suffolk now has 1,200 planes going over it every day - 600 of them across the Felixstowe peninsula.

In the next 25 years, this figure could double.

Government policy is to expand airports with increased use of existing runways and new ones at Heathrow and Stansted.

Communities will be bombarded with aircraft noise like never before.

JUST like the invisible health officials who decided to change Suffolk's emergency heart attack treatment - and hoped no-one would notice until it was too late.

That's the people at air management company NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority.

When airspace was changed in 2004 the public knew nothing about it until it happened.

Councils, expert bodies, air lines, and a number of other organisations were consulted, but residents never had the issues explained to them - and councillors did not debate the matter in public or seek to make the voters they represent aware of the changes.

At many councils the matter was dealt with at officer level, and most authorities never even took part.

They simply did not have the expertise to understand the consequences - and, shamefully, did not seek it and so did not fight the proposals which have had such a huge impact on the communities they are supposed to look after.

Since then, following work from campaign groups and The Evening Star, consultation has dramatically improved.

The CAA has said NATS must consult “widely” and hold public meetings on changes - though this didn't happen in Suffolk last year when airspace changes were proposed.

However, NATS did make a proper announcement of its proposals and full documentation, making it accessible to residents on-line and at libraries.

While the last major changes may have sneaked through, everyone is now ready for the next - and is anxiously waiting to see what they will bring when announced this autumn.

Nothing short of flightpaths and holding areas which avoid communities will be tolerated and people living on the Felixstowe and Shotley peninsulas will be expecting major changes.

EVEN after four years, Britain's aviation chiefs will still not answer some of the most vital questions about the huge increase in the number of planes over parts of Suffolk.

Often if you ask a question - and the Evening Star has asked many over the past five years and will continue to do so - the CAA will say asks NATS, NATS will say ask the CAA.

How many?

No-one - neither NATS, the CAA or Department of Transport - can say how many planes fly over the Felixstowe peninsula because no-one counts them.

There is no record kept of planes on certain routes, even though they may be using those same routes daily.

As long as air traffic controllers are certain the planes on a flightpath at any one time are far enough apart in terms of speed and distance to ensure safety, the numbers are not important, say the air bosses.

To people on the ground, “how many” is the one measure we understand.

What would be the maximum number which could fly over?

No-one can say. NATS does not have any control over the growth of airports, the number of planes flying, or the times they fly - it says it simply has to make sure the skies are managed safely.

Will planes get lower?

Planes can fly over Felixstowe as low as 5,500ft - though most are around 8,000ft and upwards. There are no guarantees about heights in the future, simply an assurance that everything possible is done to keep the airliners as high as possible to use less fuel and reduce emissions.

Why are they being sent directly over Felixstowe?

Despite policies to fly over the minimum number of people, a community of 30,000 people has been directly targeted. No-one has been able to explain why this decision was taken.

Why can the planes not be moved on a route two miles north?

Impractical, says NATS. They would rather send planes over people than fields.

SOME people might say the jets have been dumped on Felixstowe deliberately.

With Britain's biggest port on its doorstep, a busy freight rail line, and incessant noise from the A14 - one of the country's busiest dual carriageways - it's almost as if the authorities said, “Felixstowe's a noisy place, let's put the planes there - no-one will notice.”

The resort is already under pressure.

The highly-successful port is expanding and when both phases of the creation of the new deepwater terminals is complete, there will be one million more lorries a year on the A14 and a big increase in freight on the rail line.

Planners initially want to build 1,400 new homes in the area, eventually 2,000-plus - generating thousands more car journeys a day.

Sunny summer days - indeed any sunny day - brings thousands more to the coast.

Now there is added pressure from above with more noise - and the future will only bring more.

OUR CAMPAIGN: How to get involved

The Evening Star's Air Fair campaign is not against air travel - what we are against is all the planes being dumped over one area.

What we are calling for is a fair share, for flightpaths to be redesigned to cut the numbers of aircraft going over towns and villages, or on certain corridors - not every flightpath - to have a system where the jets' routes can be moved slightly on a timetable to create quiet times for people to enjoy.

More than 1,200 planes currently cross Suffolk every day and the number is set to grow hugely - possibly double - in the next two decades, bringing more noise, pollution, and blotting out the sun with their contrails, and the fear flights will get lower.

Now is the time to stand up and join our campaign to ensure that Suffolk's peace and tranquillity is not ruined further.

We want to hear your views on the aircraft going over our county.

How is it affecting your family? Is the noise from jets driving you mad? Do you think the authorities have taken the public's views over air traffic over Suffolk into account?

Should the number of planes be cut and flightpaths changed - and what are your views about what the future will be like if air travel doubles?

We need to be ready to respond to the further changes planned to airspace this year.

Let us have your views now - write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk