Airspace Q4 2017: An engaging conversation

1 December 2017

Talking with local communities about environmental and noise concerns will only increase in importance as air traffic grows.

Aviations economic benefits are well documented. Some $2.7 trillion in GDP and close to 63 million jobs are supported by air connectivity.

The industry has a good environmental record too. Today's next generation of aircraft are 50% quieter than 10 years ago, emissions are dwindling thanks to the constant achievement of 1.5% per annum fuel efficiency target and ICAO States have signed up to the carbon Offset Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) – a global market-based measure that will enable aviation to achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020.

By 2050, the aim is to cut CO2 emissions to 50% of 2005 levels despite the predicted increase in traffic.

Even so, the industry has yet to win the public over, especially at the local level. The 'not in my back yard' attitude is limiting airport and route development and aviation is portrayed as the villain.

Improving Understanding

Community engagement is entering a new phase, however. Industry partners are working together to find new ways to integrate communities into development projects to foster a better understanding on both sides.

Julie Marks, community Involvement Manager for Airspace Projects, FAA, has said that 2016 and 2017 were transformational years in local group engagement for the organisation. Its Community Involvement Manual was updated to reaffirm the FAA's commitment to inform and involve the public and to give meaningful consideration to community concerns in the FAA decision-making process.

It is not something the organisation can do on its own, though. Industry partnership is vital to the strategic implementation of a community programme. ANSPs manage air traffic operations, airlines determine the type of aircraft and the schedules they fly, and airports have facility management and community relations roles. Strategic partnership is therefore critical in considering and addressing community concerns.

Marks has noted that the need for and level of engagement must vary according to the project, but best practice includes earlier engagement with local officials and community members, including meetings outside the normal environmental review processes.

Visualisations should also form part of the engagement package. This helps the public to see how procedural changes will affect them with local landmarks acting as anchor points. Interactive noise maps can follow a similar pattern. Perhaps most importantly of all, there must be a willingness to refine plans according to community input.

Complex Science

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has taken the idea of visualisation a step further.

Every seven years, the Dutch gateway undertakes a major renovation of one of its runways. This necessarily involves rerouting flights and increasing the noise profile in some areas. The public is informed through the usual channels, but the communication was often couched in technical terminology. The policy is, after all, the result of some complex calculations and science.

The experience of different noise levels is not so coldly analytical, however. In other words, residents' perception of what runway renovation entails was quite different from the reality.

Tom Goemans, community Engagement Advisor, Schiphol Group, also speaking at GSAS in October 2017, explained part of the solution was to take the community to a runway to explain. While every effort was made to make it a fun day with children's entertainment and so forth, it also enabled the airport to 'show and tell' why runway renovation was necessary.

For Goemans, the day revealed that the community wants to engage on these matters and a small portion even want to engage at policy level. Interestingly, there was extensive dialogue between residents and workers that would not normally happen in more formal hearings. The end result was a day that took away the fear of major aviation projects and transformed a negative experience into a positive one.

That is proving crucial as consensus is important to Schiphol. The airport is situated in the area of Randstad, which has 7.1 million inhabitants. Most major infrastructure decisions are made at a roundtable where residents are officially represented.

Seeking a balance

Consensus is also an essential component in the way Heathrow is approaching community engagement.

It has set up a noise community forum that includes a councillor and community group from each affected London borough plus UK ANSP, NATS, British Airways and others. There is always a public gallery.

The forum – chaired by Heathrow – holds bi-monthly meetings lasting three hours. According to Matt Gorman, Sustainability and Environment Director at London Heathrow, it seeks to balance the environmental concerns of local communities with the commercial and safety imperatives of the airport and the airlines.

There has been plenty of good news for the UK hub to convey. Heathrow is actually quieter now than in the 1970s thanks to a number of innovations, including steeper approaches and alternative flight paths.

In addition, there has been a 16% NOx reduction in the last five years and 9 out of 11 air quality monitors are within limits. The two that are just over are located close to the busy M4 motorway that links London to the UK's West country.

Heathrow has also introduced a 'triple-lock guarantee' that means air quality will improve even as airport expands. capacity will not be released unless the airport is within EU air quality limits and options are available should traffic need to be reduced.

Gorman reported that several lessons have been learned so far that will inform improved community engagement in the future. There is still a need to find a common language to describe noise, for example. This relates to the communication issues that Schiphol also encountered. Decibel increases are not always easy to imagine when described purely in numerical terms.

Heathrow has also found that independent analyses are crucial to credibility and to build trust. And like the FAA, an acceptance that new solutions may be necessary is absolutely essential.

"Engagement is difficult, but it has to be the right answer," Gorman concluded.

Bell curve

NATS has been an important part of these discussions. For Robin clarke, community Relations Manager at NATS, public engagement with a major aviation project is often shaped a bit like a bell curve with only people at the two edges of the curve taking part.

"The public at one end will be against the proposed change, while those at the other end are positive," he said. "The problem is that we are only engaging with a self-selecting sample and we don't know how representative they are of the views of the wider public. We need to be better at reaching out to these people to understand their views – this is the great mass in the middle of that bell curve."

The more complex and contentious an airspace change proposal, the more consideration needs to be given to how the public are consulted and engaged. The traditional toolkit of consultation documents, public meetings and exhibitions will always have a role to play, but these need to be supplemented with quantitative and qualitative social research techniques, particularly innovative deliberative methods.

Clarke also extolled the virtue of upstream engagement. This could involve campaign groups helping design what an effective consultation process looks like. That way, there is always agreement that the process was fair even if there is not agreement on its outcomes. An additional important component in this process is ensuring there is regular, rather than episodic, engagement. Set piece public engagement events should not be followed by months of silence. This ongoing engagement can help build trust between the public and industry.

Perhaps most importantly, clarke emphasised that community engagement is not a battle between aviation and the public. "It cannot be a referendum on the project," said Clarke. "It is about improving the airspace change proposal and the process we follow to deliver it. We want the public to work with us to make better decisions. After all, they often have expert local knowledge that we don't have that is vital to finding mutually beneficial changes."

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