ENVIRONMENT Last modified on August 21, 2016

Listen and learn

Airports must address noise issues locally and win the trust of their surrounding communities in order to prosper and modernise airspace, writes Andy Knowles.

Noise management has become an essential part of airport management. Over the last few decades the aviation industry has evolved from ignoring the issue to working together to reduce and mitigate noise levels.

However, despite a reduction in the overall noise levels associated with aviation annoyance, challenge and opposition have increased. Research indicates that noise levels (and factors that affect it) account for, at best, only 30% of annoyance. 

So what can airports do in terms of turning this around? Well, in terms of addressing annoyance, airports need to address what are becoming known as “non-acoustic factors”, in particular social aspects such as perceived fairness, trust and satisfaction.


Collaborate and build trust to build a better airspace

A complete noise management strategy must address not only noise reduction but also non-acoustic factors such as trust through effective collaboration with the local community. 

We have developed a framework to help understand how to incorporate non-acoustic factors into the traditional noise management strategy. The following elements are critical: 

  • Noise management must consider noise reduction at its core. However, every airport is different and the priorities for local communities will be different. A strategy for noise level reduction will need to demonstrate shared benefit and address community priorities. In particular priorities for airspace design related to issues of concentration vs dispersion of flights and consideration of respite.
  • Effective communication: Consultation, community forums, consistent dialogue, being interactive and engaging are key to understanding priorities. They require strong leadership with respect, empathy and awareness as clear behaviours.
  • Enhance the conversation with common language. The range of metrics available for describing noise exposure are confusing and complex and have helped to reduce trust - the local community thinks that outcomes are being hidden. Some metrics are better than others in terms of reflecting the community experience and for generating common understanding.
  • Effective noise insulation schemes are required that reduce noise levels inside the home and address the key concerns of the communities. They must be fair.
  • Effective noise complaint management needs to identify the key priorities for the local community and should be used to help drive the development of strategy. Making a complaint should be a valuable exercise. 
  • Independent audit and verification – transparency. Information must be trusted. Independent verification of reliability and accuracy enables the conversation to move forward from questioning whether an assessment was done correctly to being about what the results mean, what was learnt and listening to concerns. 

Where a focus on noise reduction and mitigation delivers tangible results, addressing non-acoustics factors does not. You will not see a reduction in people exposed. This may create difficulty evaluating ‘return on investment’ using standard financial models. The benefits are intangible and are revealed in the long-term development of airports based on collaboration with local communities. 


A social and political risk requiring a social licence to operate

Airport noise is a social and political risk for airport development, while airport noise management is about striking a balance between the clear benefits to our society with the associated impacts. 

This requires a renewed focus towards a ‘social licence to operate’ – an organisation’s legitimacy in the eyes of society and the trust stakeholders have in it and implies joint responsibility in the achievement of shared benefits. 

It is time for airports and communities to collaborate and enable prioritised management of noise to help share the benefits of the airport.


About the author
Andy Knowles is managing director of the UK based airport noise management consultancy Anderson Acoustics.

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