Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The CAA: Who's In Charge Of the Flight Paths? An Unelected Decision Maker and The Aviation Industry

Almost 2 years ago, National Air Traffic Systems (NATS) released consultation documents on proposed changes for Terminal Control North - the London and South East region. We are led to belive it was the biggest consultation of its kind in the history of flight path proposals.

The proposals for London City Airport had been submitted to 'accommodate jet aircraft that use the airport today' (quote taken from a NATS letter to MP's 2009).

The consultation document was placed in some libraries, and was advertised via the NATS website. We have also since been told it was available on disk. But unless you visited a library (not too many people do these days) or have a pc (not too many people do in the poorest parts of the country such as Newham) then it seems unlikely you would have found out about the flight path changes that were being consulted upon. The campaign community were of course aware, and did their best to alert residents to changes which may effect them.

After the deadline passed for comments, NATS wrote to those who had responded, advising them that the whole consultation was going to be carried out again due to the feedback they had received. Great. Only that wasn't the whole truth.

Last June residents complaints went as sky high as the flight paths themselves. Residents who perhaps had only had a handful of planes fly overhead and hardly noticed them had suddenly found themselves being disturbed by a fairly constant stream of planes from LCY or at the least concentrated batches of planes at certain times of the day. Nobody knew what had happened. After all NATs had written and advised FTF that the consultation for changes to the flight paths was to be re-run in late 2010.

Residents were being told by the Department of Transport(DfT) (see the document on our website named DfT Response to Resident or email us) and London City Airport(LCY) that there had been no 'route changes' from London City Airport in its 20 odd years of running. Other residents were told by LCY that the Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) had indeed changed.

The first image beneath shows the original flight path and density of flights. The second image is the density of flights after the flight path changes, red indicating 80 or more flights a day. This is as far as we understand the current situation of the westerly departure flight path over East London.

Then finally the full truth was revealed in a response from the CAA to a local resident, which confirmed that the SIDs (aka flight paths/routes, whatever you want to call them, they are all simply a flight path to those who live beneath them) had indeed changed. The City Airport proposals that had been submitted in the NATS document had indeed been implemented, despite NATS telling respondents that they were to be consulted upon again. The proposals which did not relate to City Airport were not implemented. There will be another consultation for them, probably later this year.

Additionally, upon further inspection of the CAA/NATS stakeholder letters sent out to stakeholders inviting them to comment, it was felt that the impact on areas such as Waltham Forest and Redbridge were underplayed. It was not made clear that the flight path would be moving further north, away from the borough of Newham and just how this would affect the communities beneath the moved flight paths in Waltham Forest and Redbridge.

FTF submitted a formal complaint to the CAA in late 2009 regarding the manner in which the flight path changes had been implemented, and the apparent misinformation given by NATS in the consultation process. The CAA responded helpfully to the complaint, and FTF were invited to a meeting at the CAA to discuss the issues and processes. The meeting explained the processes well - however it was unable to resolve why residents were misinformed by NATS, nor why residents did not know that the LCY flight paths would not be consulted upon again.

The CAA were not able to answer why even those who had responded to the consultation had not been told that the flight paths had been implemented until after the fact. One interesting point the CAA made was that the LCY flight path changes had been in the pipeline for 5 years, so these proposals should have been widely known, you would have thought.

The CAA have continued to point towards their press release on the issue of the flight paths being implemented in May 2009. Unfortunately we have been unable to find one paper that ran with their press release, nor any resident, nor campaign group that was aware of the press release until a local resident in Wanstead was given the link in a written response from the CAA.

The CAA have also continued to justify, what FTF felt, were changes made through the back door, as being essential to safety. What is also unclear is if all the changes made were had actually been consulted upon. A letter from the CAA to a resident stated that some of the changes were not consulted upon in the original NATS TCN consultation at all. So where does that leave the CAA who quote in their own press release:

"A change to the use or classification of airspace in the UK can take many forms but can only be made after consultation and where it is clear that airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative or where an overall environmental benefit will accrue". (CAA press release 29 April 2009)

The CAA, to their own admission, appear to say that NATS did not consult on all of the changes implemented. There is indication of this in the NATs letter to Stakeholders dated 8 January 2009 which refers to clear differences between that which was in the TCN document, and that which was to be implemented.

There are many more angles to this story, but the most illustrating one is how the changes were implemented with few people being aware until the noise from the flights became a problem. MPs and councils were not even aware.

So how is it that NATs get away with carrying out a consultation which essentially misinformed residents over LCY changes, and that the CAA went ahead and implemented the flight changes without even elected officials being aware?

It indicates that there is room for improvement in the process of consultation and communication between the CAA and NATS, no matter how good their intentions may have been in the initial processes of consultation. The DfT also appear to need to focus on the accuracy and clarity of it's responses to residents.

At the meeting we attended, the CAA showed a radar map of the current new flight path against the old flight path (see before and after maps above). The flight paths have moved around a mile north, and have got wider. Homes which were affected by less than 5 flights a day now find themselves in the middle of the flight path, suffering from however many flights a day LCY are operating on any particular day. The CAA unfortunately feel that the change is minimal, and stated that the areas had always been flown over. Well if you were not under a busy flight path before and you now are, there is nothing minimal about this change at all.

The density map was kindly provided to FTF by the CAA and it illustrates the change well. Sadly the CAA felt that people were only complaining because they had been told about the changes, and because others were complaining. It was quite astounding to think that the CAA were in such denial or perhaps were unable to grasp the effect and impact of their decisions on the ground.

An enlightening response to a question was later given by the CAA which may indicate who is driving these flight path changes: they were asked if the flight path shown on the radar map would need to be changed again. We were told only if the airport or airline companies request for it to be so. So who exactly is driving this unelected decision making outfit? The private businesses of aviation it seems.

Such responses indicate that issues of accountability need to be addressed. It seems quite unacceptable that an unelected quango, is allowing private businesses to drive the outfit in the direction they wish, without any elected officials involvement at all. Of course we know this will be vehemently denied, but it is clear that elected politicians are not included in this process at all, and it should be they who make such impactful decisions, not the CAA.

The CAA are now reviewing the flight path changes from LCY and Mayor, Boris Johnson said he supported a public review when he responded to an FTF request at the Ilford Climate Question Time. We await to hear more on his progress to ensure that the CAA don't carry out a private technical review, and it is indeed open to the public, and that the radar maps of before and after are openly shared, and transparency of the CAA is put into action. Even so, we would encourage you, whether you are a resident or elected official to submit comments to the CAA regarding the flight path changes as soon as possible.

Overall the CAA have been helpful, pleasant and have answered most of our questions, however in so far as offering a satisfactory resolution this has not been possible. There are simply too many pieces of the jigsaw missing, and a complete lack of accountability.