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Understanding and managing community responses to aircraft noise

Project title:

ALFA: Aircraft plume analysis facility secondment

Principal investigators:

Dr Paul Hooper, Prof Callum Thomas


Omega: Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)


January 2009



Noise disturbance is often the most significant issue raised by local communities concerned about airport expansion and also accounts for the vast majority of complaints about airport operations. As aviation growth is forecast to outstrip the rate of technical and operational improvement the number of people exposed to noise around UK airports could potentially increase; a trend that is unsustainable.

The absence of a common language of reporting, communication and negotiation in relation to aircraft noise is a key obstacle to more effective noise management. In order to help address this deficiency and thereby facilitate better communication and dialogue with local communities on the issue of aircraft noise, this study undertook a preliminary, systematic evaluation of public understanding of conventional and supplementary noise metrics. The intention here was not to undermine the existing contour based metrics but rather to establish whether these could be enhanced if other explanatory indices are added.



The aim of this study is to contribute to improving the dialogue between
airports and their neighbouring communities on the issue of noise
disturbance. A key part of the study is to determine how much members of
the public truly understand about the noise climate around an airport from
the current aircraft noise metrics. In addition to this some of the issues
surrounding present and supplemental metrics, in particular those developed
in Australia, are discussed

A number of focus groups were undertaken with members of the public who
are both sensitised and non-sensitised to the issue of aircraft noise, and also
Local Authority Officers who also have an interest in the issue. Participants
were asked to consider a number of noise metrics, both current and
supplemental and then their understanding of the metrics was tested by
means of a questionnaire and by group discussions.

The findings of this research will inform recommendations, which set out to
clarify the suite of current and supplemental indicators that is most valuable
in communicating aircraft noise. More effective communication of aircraft
noise issues should have a significant impact on the relationship between
airports and their stakeholders.



In summary, the focus groups were undertaken with both sensitised and non-sensitised members of the public and also Local Authority Officers who have an interest in aircraft noise issues and revealed:

  • Considerable variation in the interpretation of different metrics used to illustrate the same noise environment.
  • General dissatisfaction and indeed mistrust in some cases among members of the public with the aggregated indictors such as Leq and Lden.
  • All the aggregated indicators (Leq, Lden, Lnight, N60 and N70) required considerable explanation in the latter part of the focus groups before participants understood the illustrations.
  • An affinity for metrics that disaggregate key elements of aircraft noise; namely, time, frequency of events and individual sound levels.
  • A desire for a wider range of noise exposure illustrations, especially among members of the public living close to airports.
  • Universal acknowledgement that bar charts, for specific locations illustrating the numbers of events within ranges of maximum sound levels for given periods of the day, were the most informative and easiest to interpret of all the metrics viewed.
  • Consensus that the flight path densities maps were the most visually attractive despite the lack of specific noise data contained therein. To combat this, a number of participants suggested that this image could be overlaid on aggregated noise footprints such as N70 or Leq contours.
  • That the public is more interested in site specific information that is easy to interpret in relation to their own personal exposure, rather than more complex images that may provide a comprehensive overview of the whole noise environment around an airport as conventionally used by planners and decision-makers.

Given the small sample size and the exploratory nature of this research, care
must be taken when attaching significance to these findings; nevertheless,
the results point to the potential value of:

A more substantive UK study to ‘test’ these preliminary findings. Providing appropriately differentiated information to different user groups depending on their individual requirements.
More detailed investigation of the supplementary noise indicators such as those developed in Australia and the novel location-specific histograms evaluated here for the first time, in terms of their:

Contribution to improved understanding of aircraft noise exposure.

Potential to aid in establishing effective dialogue with the communities most affected by aircraft noise and most cynical about the conventional metrics.

Contributing to the development of future noise metrics in such a way as to enhance public acceptance of future aviation development.


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