‘It’s blissful’: people living under UK flight paths savour plane-free skies

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A week or so ago, Iain Chirnside was lying on a trampoline in his back garden with his 12-year-old son, Oscar, when they heard a noise. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘What the heck is that?’ And we looked up and saw that it was an easyJet plane.” It caused a momentary jolt: “Flip! I had almost forgotten about that!”

The family live in the flight path of Aberdeen airport and in more normal times, as well as frequent planes, they also endure regular helicopter flights to the region’s oil rigs – which have also dramatically reduced since the twin crises of coronavirus and oil prices struck. Shortly before spotting the plane, Chirnside says, he had been delighted to hear the call of a buzzard high above his garden for the first time.

Before the crisis slashed air traffic by 90%, Chirnside says he does not think he would have been lying on the trampoline with his son on a Saturday afternoon, just watching things. “I hope we hold on to that spirit when we go back to our, inverted commas, ‘normal life’.”

It is a sentiment that has been felt keenly across the country by those who live under flight paths, who find themselves unexpectedly able to breathe clean air, hear birdsong and – for many of the worst affected – sit in their own gardens. In the week before Britain went into lockdown, 7,865 flights departed the UK’s 10 biggest airports, according to a BBC analysis of flight data. During the week to 21 April, the number recorded by Flightradar24 was 711.

For some, the change in their quality of life has been dramatic. “It’s blissful at the moment,” says Maggie Thorburn, who lives in Isleworth, west London, so close to Heathrow that at the worst times of the day planes usually scream over her home every 90 seconds, with constant air traffic from 4.30am until 11pm.

So dominant is the noise from the airport, says Thorburn, that in normal times her decisions when to open her windows or sit in her garden are driven entirely by Heathrow’s flight schedule.

Grounded easyJet aircraft parked at Southend airport.

With flight numbers down by two thirds, however, she is certainly sleeping better, “and I can hear things from further away – the church clock striking, and of course the birds. It’s not the same as being in the countryside, but it’s the next best thing. It really is a huge relief to be able to be home and have some peacefulness.”

Of course, no one is pretending the clean air and relative quiet comes without a cost. While the national economy has been clobbered by the lockdown, the collapse in air travel means towns near airports are among the worst affected. Research by the Centre for Cities suggests that in Crawley, close to Gatwick, more than half of all jobs are vulnerable either to being furloughed or lost altogether – a dizzying speed of collapse that is entirely without precedent, according to Paul Swinney, the thinktank’s director of policy and research.

“Of course, the hope would be that while the downturn is unprecedented the bounce back in theory will be very quick as well,” he says.

However, for Thorburn, who is vice-chair of the group Hacan
which campaigns against Heathrow expansion, a return to what once was considered normal is a prospect that provokes dread. “I have got used to not hearing the planes all the time. And when they come back – if they come back – I am not looking forward to business as usual.”

With many airlines struggling even to survive,

it is not clear when, if at all, air travel will return to its pre-coronavirus levels – though Swinney says he thinks flying is likely eventually to recover, because “there aren’t enough viable alternatives to flying to different places”.

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For Shaun Davidson, however, whose east London home lies in the flightpath of the closed London City airport, his newly quiet back garden has made him wonder whether it’s time to reexamine the compromises city dwellers make with aircraft noise.

“It’s made me think more about how many flights people take and how many are necessary. We probably do travel more than we need to.” Is it really worth it, he says, when the alternative might be “to have clearer skies, a nicer environment around. Yes I guess I have started questioning that.”

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