New Act limits aircraft noise and emissions

The Civil Aviation Act became law in November. It gives airport operators more powers to tackle noise and air pollution from aircraft, but a key provision offering more flexibility in the control of aircraft noise at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted was dropped.

The Civil Aviation Bill was introduced last summer to beef up environmental controls at civil airports (ENDS Report 365, p 39 ).

One of the most contentious elements in the original Bill - the introduction of new, more flexible powers to control aircraft noise at major airports - has not made it into the Act.

The proposed powers would have allowed the Secretary of State to replace the current system of caps on aircraft movements at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports with a range of other measures such as noise quotas or a noise contour. This would have encouraged operators to adopt quieter aircraft, but could also have seen an increase in flights from the airports.

The government insisted the aim of the clause was not to allow more night flights by the back door, but this failed to placate opponents and it was forced to abandon the measure to allow the rest of the proposals to progress. The government remains committed to the approach and has promised to amend the legislation at a future, unspecified, date to incorporate it.

Instead, the Act confers discretionary powers on all airport operators to establish "noise control schemes". These would allow airports to restrict landing and take-off of certain types of aircraft to certain times of day, or limit their operation through other means such as noise quotas.

Most of the Bill’s other environmental measures made it through unscathed. Airport authorities gain the power to charge aircraft according to their noise level or emissions of "any substance which contributes to atmospheric pollution."

They will also be able to take action to reduce emissions beyond their boundaries. Airports have been identified as major contributors to breaches of statutory air quality standards, particularly of nitrogen oxides. The projected growth in aviation would have seen such instances increase.

While these powers are discretionary, the Secretary of State may direct an airport to introduce such a system and can specify how the charges are set. When deciding whether to take this step they must "have regard (among other things) to the interests of persons who live in the area in which the aerodrome is situated."

The Act allows airports to impose penalties on aircraft which breach the conditions of the noise control schemes or of the system of noise and emission charging. It also stipulates that money raised this way must be spent in a way "likely to be of benefit to persons who live in the area in which the aerodrome is situated." But it leaves it up to the airport operator, not local people, to decide what is of benefit to them.

Taken together, the measures should encourage operators to use cleaner and quieter planes.

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