Gina Davidson: It's David v Goliath in airport stoush

THE long-running debate about whether a third runway should be built at Heathrow, or a second one at Gatwick airport, can feel like an irrelevance; an argument happening hundreds of miles away which, unless you're an environmental campaigner constantly concerned about air pollution and climate change, is easy to dismiss as entirely London-centric.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 11th February 2016, 11:32 am
Updated Thursday, 11th February 2016, 11:34 am
File picture: Ian Georgeson
File picture: Ian Georgeson

Yet it is one which we should all be watching with intense interest, especially in the light of Edinburgh Airport’s unsurprising announcement this week that it’s controversial trial flight path over West Lothian last year was a “technical success”.

To recap: the airport introduced a trial route called TUTUR to discover if it could get aircraft off the tarmac every minute at peak times – such as early morning – rather than every two minutes as is currently the case. This would apparently reduce emissions, make the airport more efficient and keep airlines and passengers – many of whom are flying to London – happy.

But the route flew over homes in Broxburn, Uphall, Linlithgow, Blackness and other small villages which had never been bothered by plane noise before. And it was done with little or no consultation with people who would be affected, many of whom found their lives totally disrupted.

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As a result a campaign group was born, fighting to make sure that this new route would not become permanent. The airport eventually called a halt to the trial early after being bombarded by thousands of complaints and having the issue raised in the Scottish Parliament.

Since then, those affected believe that planes supposed to be using old routes are not sticking to them and are still over-flying their homes. This is denied by the airport. They have also become much more aware of flights through the night, particularly around 4.30am. Complaints are still being made.

A slumbering David has been woken to battle the Goliath of Edinburgh Airport and its owners, Global Infrastructure Partners, who also, did I mention, own Gatwick.

The airport says it wants to be a good neighbour yet has dismissed the mass of complaints as being from a “relatively small number of people, living in pockets of West Lothian” – at a stroke belittling the impact the trial had on those people, some of whom were affected badly enough to complain hundreds of times.

It knows it will have a battle on its hands should it decide to attempt to make this route permanent – in the same way Heathrow and Gatwick airports face a battle from the communities which surround them.

Furthermore, a new front has also opened up in another direction as a petition about noise is doing the rounds of Cramond and Barnton. And that was before the local community council was informed of a plan to increase the frequency of take-offs over their area when the prevailing winds are right.

So 2016 is going to be an important year for Edinburgh Airport, which suddenly finds itself no longer just the good guy making the city an important travel hub and contributing to the general economic health of the place.

And what happens down south will have a major bearing. A third runway at Heathrow seems more likely to be approved than the Gatwick plan, but the Commons environmental audit 
committee has been definite in what the airport needs to do before that can happen: that it can prove it can meet legal air pollution requirements as aviation is on track to exceed its climate change targets; that there’s a ban on night flights; that a community engagement board is established; that communities receive predictable respite from planes. Without all of that, the committee is clear, an increase in air and noise pollution will leave the government and airport open to legal cases around damage to public health.

The airport’s report says that nine tonnes of fuel and 30 tonnes of CO2 were saved during the trial but its noise monitoring report has not been released – it just states that “results from independently produced noise reports concluded that “flights generate significant noise over and above background noise” . . . we recognise that we must . . . measure and mitigate the impacts our operations have.”

That sounds like an admission the campaigners’ complaints were valid. They probably still are, as local MSP Fiona Hyslop says that more jets using the old GOSAM route are also having a noise impact.

Watch what happens with the Heathrow decision. If the airport is forced to meet the Commons committee’s demands, Edinburgh will be expected to as well.

Without a doubt the Davids of West Lothian (and perhaps also Cramond and Barnton) are getting their slingshots ready.

Arrogant e-mail

IN other belittling and dismissing public opinion news, the chair of NHS Lothian has said he “wasn’t bothered” and “saw no need to pay heed” to hundreds of e-mails sent to him by people concerned about the future of the children’s ward at St John’s Hospital.

Brian Houston made his outrageous remark about people’s responses in an e-mail he sent to NHS Lothian’s chief executive – which has come to light after a Freedom of Information request.

Apparently the views of patients and their families were easily ignored because they used a pro forma complaints letter. He has apologised but it’s a shame that out-of-touch arrogant chairmen are not as easily dismissed as people’s genuine concerns.