Stealing airliners’ thunder

Soaring fuel costs, security fears and strikes are just a few of the issues preoccupying the commercial aviation sector at the moment.

Soaring fuel costs, security fears and strikes are just a few of the issues preoccupying the commercial aviation sector at the moment.

Another, less obvious, area of focus is noise. The words quiet and airliner may seem strange bedfellows. But it is an area the industry is taking increasingly seriously.

The work by the US giants Boeing and Nasa is mirrored by efforts here in the UK to find technical innovations that can take the edge off the thunderous roar of the world’s passenger jets.

This was vividly illustrated by this week’s unveiling of a striking new plane design by the team of engineers working on the Silent Aircraft Initiative at the Cambridge-MIT Institute.

It would be wrong to see the development of noise-reduction technologies as a marginal activity. In fact, the projects underway on both sides of the Atlantic form part of a wider picture of engineering research that will play a key role in the future shape of the entire commercial sector.

Airline operators and the manufacturers that sell them aircraft are counting on expanding traffic in passengers and freight to fuel their own growth over the coming decades.

Whatever way you cut it, that means more flights and bigger, busier airports. In a small, crowded country such as the UK, the implications of this are considerable.

One trend in particular is likely to turn noise — and indeed ‘pollution’ from aircraft in all its forms — into an increasingly important factor. This is the growth of regional airports from small-scale operations offering the odd charter flight into significant hubs in their own right.

While large-scale plans such as the expansion of Stansted and Heathrow grab the national headlines, they are far from the only examples.

Across the UK, from Newcastle to Kent, regional airports are putting forward increasingly bold expansion plans. Indeed, having a vibrant airport offering European, or even intercontinental, flights is seen as something of a local status symbol. Witness the recent efforts of Nottingham East Midlands Airport to attract tourists from Eastern Europe to the city of Robin Hood by offering cheap flights.

But the growth of airports will not go unopposed, and those living close to the newly expanded terminals will become increasingly vocal themselves on issues such as noise. This applies particularly to the highly contentious issue of night flights, favoured by cargo operators as an opportunity to get freight in and out of airports.

Indeed, the Civil Aviation Bill currently making its way through parliament proposes that airports should set noise limits and fine airlines that exceed them.

The industry is aware of all this, hence the effort being put into making future aircraft less intrusive to those below their flight paths. In the long-run, everyone will benefit from this.

Andrew Lee, Editor