Helios recommend CAA should remain judge and jury on major airspace

Helios_CAA_860x484Analysis of Helios’ review of airspace change process for the CAA

The CAA  has commissioned consultants, Helios, who (unsurprisingly) recommend it should remain judge and jury on major airspace changes that affect the lives of millions of people. Here’s our response.

The government is considering Future Air Space strategy, reviewing noise metrics (this has been delayed for at least six months – coincidentally the minimum period set to consider environmental factors further before making a decision on airport expansion in the South East) and considering the creation of an independent noise regulator.

Against this background aviation consultant, Helios, was commissioned in 2015 by the CAA to undertake an ‘independent review’ of the airspace change process (ACP). Its report, issued in December 2015, has been described as being heavily critical of the CAA.

On 14 December 2015 the CAA launched a consultation exercise in relation to its own five-year strategic plan. This consultation closes on 19 February 2016.

The purpose of this note is to highlight issues relevant to the role of the CAA and the proposed consultation arising from Helios’ work. It is not intended to be a summary of the ACP or Helios’ report – this document can be accessed through the following link. Helios’ report contains a four-page executive summary setting out its main findings and recommendations.

Helios’ review was commissioned and funded by the CAA – and therefore cannot be regarded as being truly independent. Although the report is critical of the basis the CAA undertakes its work, many of its key criticisms concern the framework set for aviation in general by government. Essentially Helios recommends how the current system might be finessed rather than proposing radical changes to the airspace governance framework.

Regarding the CAA’s consultation it is especially relevant that in January 2016 a Gatwick community group was given leave to challenge a High Court decision which had supported the CAA’s narrow interpretation of its duties under the current ACP, and this case will now be heard at the Court of Appeal. Leave to appeal has been allowed having regard (a) to the way significant airspace changes have been managed recently – in particular involving the use of new flight technologies (referred to as Performance Based Navigation – PBN) and (b) widespread protests regarding the lack of protection to the general public in the UK.

In this context Helios’ study might be regarded as a defensive measure for the CAA, a smokescreen perhaps to the fundamental changes that are now required having regard to the way aviation has expanded in recent years, the desire by the industry and government for further growth and the introduction of new technologies that have the potential to blight the lives of many people living near an airport.

Helios’ criticisms of current arrangements

Helios arrives at the following findings;

  • There is insufficient information or advice on the government’s strategic priorities – economy v noise v environment v non commercial aviation activities.
  • The current primary noise metrics are widely challenged and do not provide a good measure for respite.
  • Aircraft paths can be altered affecting the noise environment very significantly, without this falling within an ACP. Guidance note CAP 725 is not sufficiently precise.
  • There is no independent team to look at aviation noise complaints.
  • There is a lack of a clear national aviation noise strategy.
  • The compensation framework is inadequate – particularly in relation to the potential wide spread introduction of new highly concentrated routes (under PBN).
  • There is lack of transparency and visibility within the ACP.
  • Under the current process a change sponsor (usually an airline – not the CAA) leads in preparing a case and undertaking consultation; the CAA takes the sponsor’s case and reviews it. Helios considers the CAA’s role is too hands off and in particular the aviation industry sponsor appears to be ‘judge and jury’ in relation to consultation.
  • Helios notes that potential conflicts of interests exist within the CAA which ‘need to be managed’. The CAA is responsible for promoting travel and associated economic benefits at the same time is responsible for protecting the general public from noise and other forms of pollution.
  • There is no appeal process, save for judicial review.

Helios’ conclusions and recommendations are set out in the report’s Executive Summary.

A community perspective on Helios’ findings

As noted Helios focusses to a very significant degree on the shortcomings of the current system rather than deficiencies in the way the CAA operates within it on a day to day basis.

Ultimately it makes a series of recommendations to tighten the current system but these do not change or challenge in any significant way the status quo. Helios recommends the pro aviation DfT sets the framework and advocates a system within this which gives the aviation industry (of which the CAA is an integral part) final control.

This can be illustrated as follows;

  • Since the 1920s – when aircraft were very few and small – aviation has been excluded from general laws of nuisance that protect the public in any other field of activity. This is not highlighted as an issue by Helios or seen as something that should be considered for review – notwithstanding the location of airports in densely populated areas, an exponential increase in the numbers of flights, significant changes in the use of routes, increased usage of huge noisy long haul aircraft (especially at unsocial hours) and the vast number of people now impacted.
  • In Helios’ report there is very little reference to or consideration for health impacts apart from the monetisation of significant illnesses associated with aviation – public health is not specified as a specific or significant factor by Helios in terms of reviewing options for and impacts of ACP. Whilst ultimate responsibility for public health rests with the government, for an industry regulator this is unsatisfactory – thrown into sharp relief by the issue in January 2016 of the Aviation Environment Federation’s report on the health impacts of aviation and with new guidance on aviation noise due to be published by the World Health Organisation later this year.
  • Under Helios’ recommendations the aviation industry still generates and promotes all AC applications. Helios recommends a more prescriptive approach but considers the CAA should continue to oversee the process but not be directly involved in the sponsorship of any case – nor indeed to be able to propose changes in its own right. This means the CAA – which is the primary organisation with duties for protecting the public from noise and pollution – will not be responsible for promoting changes which have noise or environmental benefits. If the regulator can’t do this, who will? Given the inherent conflicts in the CAA’s remit and its closeness to the aviation industry it is not at all satisfactory that there should be no independent oversight of the CAA – outside of the DfT.
  • An appeal mechanism is proposed (in respect of ACP decisions) but Helios recommends this would still involve any appeal being decided by members of the CAA board. The CAA remains judge and jury and still retains control. An independent noise regulator (if introduced) would have no powers of direction and in effect no teeth. It is submitted that, as with all other forms of transport such as roads and rail, there should external oversight – ultimately outside the DfT and CAA – reviewing the performance of the CAA and with the ability to overturn its decisions if these do not protect the public. An independent regulatory board or select committee with a remit on health, noise and the environment should be established by parliament to do this.
  • In assessing options and making investment decisions Helios recommends the CAA should use the standard DfT appraisal process known as WebTAG (which monetises health impacts). It is pertinent to note that the Airports Commission (in consultation with the CAA) did not follow this guidance (and that like the CAA it took a passive stance in reviewing evidence produced by industry promoters rather than commissioning significant original research and empirical studies).
  • Helios suggests the following criteria in evaluating ACP applications; safety, operational, economic, commercial, environmental and societal. It does not suggest a weighting – nor a system of ‘quality thresholds’ or minimum standards, which if not satisfied would debar a proposal from proceeding. It is inherent that minimum standards must apply to safety but why should this principle not extend to health impacts, levels of noise or environmental impacts, which in the longer term will have very great costs to the public?
  • The report leaves it to the aviation industry sponsor to evaluate the scale of compensation attached to an AC application (which is not reviewed in detail). Clearly this is not an appropriate basis for proceeding and could underplay vastly the costs to society of giving aviation a relatively free reign.
  • In para 2.4 of the summary of recommendations Helios recognises the inherent potential conflicts in the CAA’s role and suggests it should ‘retain sufficient independence between noise modelling and evaluation for ACP’. It is difficult to see how – without recourse to external appeal – this could lead to a fair or balanced system.
  • New guidance is proposed in relation to respite – which Helios notes ‘is being used more and more as an operational measure and was given a high priority by the Airports Commission’. In fact, the Airports Commission suggested respite should be halved for areas currently under incoming flight paths and the Commission did not confirm any specific routes which would apply to expansion. On this basis the exercise can only have been highly theoretical and could not reflect the practical impacts on communities.


Whilst critical of the aviation governance system Helios’ report appears to be written to support the CAA by tightening the process rather than proposing any fundamental change.

Under the proposed framework the aviation industry is still ‘judge and jury’ and the CAA remains the final arbiter – even to the extent Helios proposes that appeals against its decisions are to be taken by members of its board!

Given the level of growth sought by the government and aviation industry in the UK (the CAA estimates 29 million people could be affected by a changed noise environment) a much more comprehensive and fundamental governance review is required to protect the public.

In the same way as is required in relation to major rail and road projects there should be an obligation to carry out a full Environmental Impact Assessment for every significant change – with Health, Environment and H&S bodies being statutory consultees. Associated with this there should also be the ability to call for full scale public inquiries where major changes in the use of airspace are proposed.

The general public should have a right to health and well being and having regard to this should be better protected against the excesses of aviation, which can have such devastating impacts on peoples’ lives.

The role of the CAA is now out to consultation – Have your say but you must respond before 15 February.

See also TAG guidelines on the CAA consultation.

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  1. 27th February 2016

    Coming back to Twickenham after 14 years working abroad, I am appalled at the noise pollution that now blights the area. My wife is woken by every flight, so she now leads a zombie-like experience until we can leave this wretched area.

    I used to like living here. It was like a semi-rural oasis within striking distance of London, Heathrow and the M3. Some noise pollution was to be expected, but fourteen years ago single-glazed windows did not seem to present an issue regarding noise. Now even double-glazing doesn’t work.

    At that time flights went along the line of the runways at Heathrow, over Hounslow. One felt sympathy for the people of Hounslow, but hadn’t most of them known about their location under flight paths when they moved there?

    But now the aircraft bank in on the runways, flying over areas where people bought homes that rarely saw an aircraft, let alone heard one. When did the flight paths get changed? Heathrow hasn’t moved, and it was the “world’s most popular airport” when I last lived here. What has happened to democracy – when did the people of Twickenham agree to be subjected to several hundreds of flights over their heads effectively between 4am and 1am, seven days a week?

  2. Jennyahull@yahoo.com
    10th February 2016

    I am seriously concerned about pollution levels and childrens health that includes air quality and NOISE levels interferring with studies and sleep. I am concerned that there appears to be no outside adjudicator over all these issues un connected to airports and governments. I am worried about planes increasing over UK major City London in light of terrorist threats and general well being and safety and I am totally against an increase in aircraft into LONDON we have too much already. We are breaking EU rules on air quality already.

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