Heathrow sets out blueprint for tackling aircraft noise as Qatar’s all-new Airbus A350 XWB makes its London debut
Heathrow's Matt Gorman onboard the Qatar Airways A350 XWB
Thu 15 Jan 2015 – London’s Heathrow Airport used an operational proving visit of Qatar Airways’ first new Airbus A350 aircraft earlier this week to outline its 10-point plan to reduce aircraft noise impacts by this summer. The steps include the phasing out of the oldest and noisiest Chapter 3 aircraft serving the airport. Accounting for around one per cent of all aircraft using Heathrow, the airlines that use them already pay ten times more than for the quietest aircraft and the airport operator is considering further increases in Chapter 3 landing charges. Other actions include campaigns to encourage better use of aircraft technology and operational procedures, bigger fines for noisy departures and reductions in late departures. During the A350 visit, a field trial was conducted of the new aircraft's noise levels on two approaches to the airport.
Called the ‘Blueprint for noise reduction’, the Heathrow action plan includes an acceleration of existing efforts to improve the noise performance of the airport as well as some new initiatives, explained Matt Gorman, Heathrow’s Director of Sustainability.
This summer, following the country’s general election, the Airports Commission is due to present its findings and recommendations to the incoming government on runway expansion around London, and the impact of noise on local communities has already proved a major factor in the process. Although Heathrow has been keen to impress the Commission with the noise initiatives it is undertaking, Gorman is adamant that tackling noise is important for his airport regardless of its proposed expansion plans.
“We are a busy airport near London and we need to take responsibility for tackling noise today,” he said, whilst acknowledging that there had been a breakdown of trust from local communities over past promises on noise. “The way we will mend this is by making clear commitments and sticking to them.”
Four of the 10 steps Heathrow is taking to reduce noise impacts on communities involve aircraft on approach to the airport. Over 85% of daytime and over 90% of night-time arrivals use a continuous descent approach (CDA) procedure in which aircraft descend at a steady rate rather than coming down in steps, which causes more noise. Although a high percentage by industry standards, Heathrow says it will work with air traffic services provider NATS and other parties to encourage the worst-performing airlines to do more to adhere to the airport’s code of practice.
The airport is also looking to explore the potential for aircraft to make steeper angles of descent which would mean the aircraft spending less time at low altitudes. Heathrow believes an aircraft coming in to land at an angle of 3.25 degrees instead of the normal 3 degrees would be noticeably quieter without compromising safety. To prove the point, it will work with airlines this September to trial steeper descents, with a long-term aim of incorporating the steeper angles into proposals for redesigning Heathrow airspace.
As landing aircraft lower their landing gear, engine power has to be increased to compensate and so increasing noise. There are no rules about when landing gear should be lowered and the decision is left to the pilot. However, says Heathrow, there is a lack of consistency between airlines operating the same aircraft type, and sometimes within the same airline. It says it will consult with airlines to understand the reasons and what can be safely done to delay landing gear deployment and encourage quieter landings.
The Airbus A320 family of aircraft account for over a half of all aircraft using Heathrow but they are prone to emitting a distinctive high-pitched whistling sound when around 10 to 25 miles from touchdown. This is caused by airflow over the aircraft’s fuel vents but it is now possible to retrofit a component that reduces the noise from each aircraft by around 6 decibels. To make retrofitting a more attractive option, Heathrow says it will investigate what incentives – financial or otherwise – it can offer airlines to fix the problem.
The airport is also going to investigate if it can make a better and fairer distribution of night-time landing noise by spreading runway use more evenly between the two runways and the two directions of approach.
On departures, Heathrow is introducing higher fines, which go to a local community fund, for airlines exceeding noise limits, particularly at night. It also intends working with NATS and airlines to reduce late departures at night. The last scheduled departure of the day leaves its stand at 22:50 but for a variety of reasons aircraft often leave later, which can be disruptive for local communities. Heathrow says if it becomes necessary, aircraft may be refused permission to depart after 23:30.
Other steps in the action programme include accelerating an insulation programme for local schools and the continuation of a programme launched last year to provide quiet outdoor learning spaces, called adobe buildings, for 21 primary schools within zones of higher aircraft noise.
According to Gorman, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye recently wrote to the chief executives of around 40 airlines serving the airport asking for their support in phasing out older aircraft and adopting the operating procedures outlined in the Blueprint. Gorman said the early response so far had been positive.
The appearance at Heathrow of Qatar Airways’ new Airbus A350-900 was largely to demonstrate the quietness of the aircraft compared to types it is designed to replace and engineering firm Arup set up noise monitoring instruments to measure two landings of the aircraft. However, as neither flight carried a normal payload the plane’s noise capabilities were not measured under normal operating conditions.
The A350-900, which is powered by two Rolls-Royce new-generation Trent XWB engines, has a margin of 21 EPNdB compared to the ICAO Chapter 4 limit, says Airbus.
Qatar Airways is the launch customer for the Airbus A350 XWB (extra wide body) and the inaugural commercial flight of the first plane to be delivered took off from Doha to Frankfurt earlier today. Heathrow is unlikely to see a return of the aircraft in the near future as Qatar and other early customers have no plans to use it on routes to London. Heathrow’s hub carrier British Airways has ordered 18 of the stretch version (–1000) but is not expected to take delivery of its first A350 until 2017 or 2018. BA may use the aircraft to replace the much older and noisier Boeing 747-400s in its fleet.
The A350 XWB is made with 53% composite material and a total of 70% advanced materials combining titanium and aluminium alloys, which allows for significant weight savings and therefore lower fuel burn and carbon emissions per passenger. Airbus is claiming A350 fuel consumption and carbon emissions will be 25% lower than the aircraft it typically replaces.