Skies at the limit
SUFFOLK'S skies are like the A14 of the aviation world - part of the busiest airspace in Europe. In the next two decades they will get busier, noisier and more polluted.
By Richard Cornwell
SUFFOLK'S skies are like the A14 of the aviation world - part of the busiest airspace in Europe. In the next two decades they will get busier, noisier and more polluted. Today brings part one of a special week-long investigation, where RICHARD CORNWELL discovers the increase in air traffic over the county.
AIRCRAFT observers say an incredible 1,200-plus planes a day are flying over parts of Suffolk.
But the truth is no-one knows how many there actually are - because astonishingly the authorities do not keep records of them.
The only safe bet is that the figures are going to rise dramatically over the years ahead, with the government's determination to double the amount of air travel and passenger numbers at Stansted Airport set to almost treble.
As long as the airspace above us can handle safely the number of planes flying through it at any one time, the authorities do not care if there are 100 or 10,000 planes a day.
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The Evening Star launched its Air Fair? campaign two years ago amid growing public concern over the numbers of aircraft, noise from planes - especially late at night - and the effect of vapour trails and jet exhaust fumes on the atmosphere.
A total of 1,200 is almost one a minute on average, but in reality it can be many planes at once.
Criss-crossing at different levels miles apart, like a spaghetti junction in the sky, these planes are heading for Stansted, Luton, Heathrow, Gatwick, and East Midlands airports, and some simply flying straight over Britain going to and from America.
Take a walk on the Felixstowe peninsula any evening and watch the planes flying overhead - their lights winking in the black sky.
Throughout the evening, many times several can be seen at once, flying in different directions above and below each other.
The grumbling noise of planes during late evening now, or early morning, once other ambient noise levels are reduced, or cloud cover is low, is very noticeable and getting worse.
Everyone enjoys cheap air travel, especially for holidays, but planes above add pressure to our communities just as much as extra traffic on our roads, and rumbling freight trains.
The enormous increase in flights over Suffolk in the past few years is down to major airspace changes which came into effect in 2004 with virtually no public consultation.
Councils were asked for their views on the changes - which increased capacity of the airspace by 30 per cent and eased air traffic delays - but most felt they did not have the expertise to make proper representations and felt there would be little impact anyway.
Only one council in Suffolk brought the matter into the public arena, while officers responded at other authorities. Suffolk Coastal, which has been effected the most, didn't bother to respond at all.
Residents were not asked for views and the increase - which could allow 1,600 planes a day in the next three years - was approved.
However the impact is now being felt.
The Felixstowe area in particular has seen a huge growth of air traffic - with many people puzzled why it has to come over an urban area when moving it a few degrees north or south would send it over much less populated areas.
The peninsula is the boundary of four different airspace areas with planes from different routes converging on it. This means planes are travelling as low as 5,500ft above the resort, then on flight paths of 8,500 and 10,500 feet, depending on which airport they are heading to or coming from, or as high as 45,000 ft if they are flying over the UK heading for America or other far-flung European destinations.
Ipswich, too, is seeing more planes and aircraft are able to fly over the town at 8,500 ft instead of 13,500 ft as previously. There is also a stacking area to the north of the town where planes may be forced to circle and wait until they can land at airports.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said the changes would have “no detrimental impact on safety” but would only generate enough capacity to handle projected air traffic growth up to 2010 - and plans are now afoot to expand the airspace again.
However, it has promised better consultation this time, to make sure the public have their say.
With increasing pressure on air space for the growing number of planes, one way of adding more space and reduce delays will be to allow planes to fly at 1,000ft above each other instead of 2,000ft above 29,000ft.
“The CAA understands the importance and supports the need for public engagement on changes to airspace arrangements,” said a spokesman.
“Airspace Change Sponsors will be required to engage and formally consult with all regional, county, district and borough councils and unitary authorities whose areas are affected by the proposed changes.”
Are you bothered by the increase in planes flying over our towns and villages - or does the noise concern you? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail EveningStarLetters@eveningstar.co.uk
See The Evening Star every day this week for special features on the growth of air traffic affecting Suffolk. We will be looking at what politicians think, the impact of extra noise and pollution, the effect on global warming, and what you can do to stop planes ruining our environment.
229 million passengers passed through the UK's airports in 1995
500 million passengers are predicted by the government to pass through UK airports by 2030.
2.39 million landings and take-offs of commercial aircraft at UK airports every year - up six per cent in the past two years.
2.6 million tonnes of freight and mail were carried from UK airports in 2005, a decrease of one pc.
6,000 take-off and landings are handled by air traffic controllers in the UK every day.
COMMUNITY leaders say they expect to be consulted later this year on changes to the airspace over Suffolk.
Ipswich Borough Council said it had only had one complaint about aircraft noise since the last changes in 2004. It was not aware of any moves to increase the number of planes flying over the area.
A Suffolk Coastal spokesman said: “We have been made aware by NATS that they are planning to hold a public consultation towards the end of this year about possible changes.
“We would consider whether any requested response would go from officers or from the relevant cabinet member or the relevant committee once we receive the final proposals.
“It is our understanding that a full public consultation will be held so there will be a chance for everyone to give their view directly, and we expect that this would be fully publicised.”
The council had received three complaints about aircraft noise since 2004, but there was no evidence of this causing significant concern to residents.
Suffolk County Council has received three noise complaints, but councillors and the Dedham Vale project officer have received many more. The council also received a petition against proposed developments at Stansted.
The council is opposing the growth of Stansted, including construction of a second runway, because of the adverse environmental impact which would result from the increase in flights.
“Officers of the county council have been in informal discussion with NATS since January 2006, as NATS has been preparing options for a further programme of airspace changes potentially affecting a wide area of East Anglia. The council understands that a full public consultation on NATS' preferred option is scheduled to begin in the latter part of 2007,” said a spokesman.
Mid Suffolk District Council said National Air Traffic Services (NATS) were keeping the authority informed of the developments of proposals for a new airspace change.
“NATS have advised Mid Suffolk that they are in the process of evaluating what airspace changes will be required to accommodate the growth in air traffic over the south-east of England, including flights to and from Stansted, Luton, London City and Heathrow,” said a spokeswoman.
“These airspace changes maybe needed to enhance the safety and efficiency of air traffic control in the face of sustained growth and to minimise future delays.
“Any proposed changes are not designed to support potential runway expansions at any individual airport.”
The council had not received any complaints that could be attributed to aircraft noise or night flying. Previous changes to uses of airspace over Suffolk were not predicted to have a significant adverse noise impact.
A Babergh District Council spokesman said: “Alongside many other local councils, Babergh has met with NATS about a range of possible options and their future plans.
“These briefings are at an early stage and we understand that NATS plans to carry out a full consultation exercise later this year and Babergh will doubtless be one of the very many organisations to be canvassed for our views on their detailed proposals”