A bit of peace and quiet
Alec Samuels discusses the growing problem of noise pollution from the air, and considers the remedies available to those affected
One of the most significant features treasured by lovers of the countryside is its tranquillity. Noise pollution is a curse of our time.
Military aircraft we accept as part of national defence. Commercial aircraft we accept as part of a prosperous economy. But they must comply with the flight path and flying hours rules. In Hampshire, Farnborough and Eastleigh, along with Bournemouth in neighbouring Dorset, are considerable and active airports, all well run. Increasing activity in Eastleigh, as part of the national emphasis upon developing regional airports, is causing some concern. The aviation industry claims that modern aircraft are bigger (so fewer aircraft are required), quieter, more efficient, and less polluting. The experts differ as to whether flight paths over national parks are better concentrated or better dispersed.
The noise problem lies principally with the small leisure aircraft. The members of organised clubs behave in a competent and respectful manner, with modern aircraft, proper insurance, and fitted silencers, flying over the sea or keeping to agreed zones. It is the rogue flyers who cause the problem.
What are the remedies open to aggrieved persons? Representations by individuals, communities, and public bodies (such as local authorities and national parks authorities) might help. Tranquillity maps have been made available by some national parks, as in the South Downs National Park. Under normal aviation practice, provided the rules are being complied with, an aircraft flying overhead, such as a noisy helicopter, is by statute protected from a legal action in nuisance and trespass (see Peires v Bickerton’s Aerodromes Ltd  EWCA Civ 273, paragraphs 44 to 63, and sections 76 to 82 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982). Numerous flying restriction orders have been made for individual airports under the Air Navigation (General) Regulations 2006.
The safety rules derive from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and the noise standards from the EU European Aviation Standards Agency (EASA) and the standardised European Rules of the Air (SERA) (see Peires, paragraphs 16 to 18). For the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) lays down the rules of the air, which are principally concerned with safety rather than amenity, and legal action can be taken against those infringing the rules, and against the CAA for not enforcing the rules.
The Rules of the Air Regulations 2015 are in process of consultation, with a view to improvement, including consideration of noise pollution. The aircraft must be not less than 500 feet above any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure, and 1,000 feet in the case of a city or town. The practical problems lie in identifying malefactors, and in accurately measuring the level of the sound and the source of the sound, as sound usually arises from a combined mix of sources, and then persuading the authorities to act. Modern technology does enable sound to be recorded and analysed and measured, but requires experts, organisation, and resources.
Regulations for drones
A significant new development has been the recent emergence of drones. Drones can be used for fun, or by farmers for photographing and spraying their crops, or by businesses for delivering goods. However, there are potential disbenefits and abuses. A drone may pose a risk to a commercial aircraft in flight near an airport; it may fall out of control and injure a child on the ground; or it may be noisy and annoy people in the countryside and in their garden.
Therefore, the EASA is preparing a new regulatory framework for all unmanned aircraft systems. The purpose is to control risk, safety, privacy, and security; to protect the market; to impose technical requirements; and to authorise zoning, thus creating drone-free zones. The CAA is following suit, and new regulations will require registration of drones of 250 grams and over, safety awareness tests, technical and operational competence, identification of drones, the reporting of incidents, and restriction of operation to zones.
Alec Samuels is a barrister and former reader at Southampton University