Lifting annual flight number cap at London City would generate widespread opposition

by John Stewart, chair HACAN East

 The remarks this week by the new CEO of London City that it might seek planning permission to lift the current cap of 111,000 on the number of flights permitted to use the airport each year has caused alarm. 

Is London City about lifting flight cap?

What is less clear is whether this is the official policy of the airport or simply speculation by the chief executive.  Robert Sinclair made the remarks in an interview with Neil Lancefield who covers transport for the Press Association.

Sinclair is new to City Airport and new to London.  When I’ve seen him in action at consultative committee meetings I have got little sense that he had much idea of the impact of the airport beyond its immediate neighbourhood or of the ill-feeling it had created amongst many communities and local authorities over its past high-handed behaviour.  Unless he was deliberately flying a kite to test reaction, a man more aware of community and local authority sensitivities would surely have spent some effort in preparing the ground before talking about seeking to overturn the current annual cap which local campaign groups have described as ‘the reddest of red lines’.

Robert Sinclair, a New Zealander, was previously CEO of Bristol Airport and, prior to that, was at Auckland Airport.  But, even if he was unaware of the impact his remarks would have on many local communities, the fact he made them probably indicates the way the new owners of London City are thinking.

New owners want return on investment

In early 2016 a Canadian consortium, led by the Ontario Teachers’ pension fund, bought London City for around £2bn, a higher price than it was expected to go for.   They will be expected to make a return on that investment.  City Airport has been given permission to use larger aircraft which will enable it to serve destinations beyond it traditional domestic and near-Europe destinations on a more regular basis which should increase profits.

But what I suspect has surprised the new owners is that for each of the last couple of years the number of flights at the airport has fallen (although passengers numbers rose).  Flights numbers hover around 83,000 a year.  When pressed on the reasons for the fall, the airport has been unable to provide a clear answer.  The suspicion is that its current market making be reaching a plateau.  London City is essentially a business airport.  Business passengers make up over 60% of its customers. For most UK airports they are less than 20% and even Heathrow it is only around a third.

City’s prime destinations have tended to other key business destinations in Europe:  Frankfurt, Luxemburg, Geneva, Amsterdam, Edinburgh etc.  Robert Sinclair’s remarks to the Press Association that it was now trying to branch out into the high-quality leisure suggests that the new owners are concerned that their business market is flattening out.

Expansion would set back community relations

However, any attempt to lift the cap will set back relations with communities and local authorities which have improved in recent years.  The airport has engaged more openly.  The consultative community, under its impressive new chair Duncan Alexander, has been transformed.  And Newham Council, the planning authority, is now doing a good job in monitoring the activities of the airport.  And indeed many in the community welcomed the new owners as people who seemed serious about running an airport (including dealing with it, community and environmental impacts) rather than seeing it simply as an asset to be sold off for a quick buck.

But things could sour again. People don’t need long memories to remember the minimal consultation when the flight paths were concentrated in 2016 – City’s poor consultation, while legal at the time, was one of the reasons reasons the CAA have fundamentally changed the consultation procedures for airspace changes.  People are also angry about the way flight paths had been changed a few years earlier with few people knowing about the change in advance.

A history of discontent

And those with longer memories will recall that when the airport opened it was on the basis that there would be no more than just over 30,000 flights a year using turbo-prop aircraft.  Or that in 1989, just two years after its opening, the airport owners submitted a planning application to extend the runway, allowing the use of a larger number of aircraft types.  Or that in 2002 a jet centre catering for business jets was opened - and that the jets were not to be included in the total number of flights permitted to use the airport.  Or that in 2009 the airport finally got permission to increase flights from to 120,000 a year (subsequently scaled back to 111,000).

Of course the airport has done some things right.  For the very immediate neighbourhood around the airport it has provided money for community facilities and has one of the best insulation systems of any airport in the country.  It has accepted that, because people live so close to it, it cannot have night flights or any flights between midday Saturday and midday Sunday.

Widespread opposition to lifting of cap

But it cannot be stressed enough the level of opposition there would be to the lifting of the annual flight cap.  At present is essentially a rush-hour airport largely serving business needs.  This means that there is a period from mid-morning to late afternoon when there are relatively few planes.  The concern for residents that if the cap was lifted (and more leisure flights started using the airport) the airport would operating flights every few minutes right throughout the day.  And, if the controversial concentrated flight paths remained, aircraft noise would dominate the lives of many people within the affected communities, particularly as a lot of them are also overflown by Heathrow planes.

Because London City is such a recent airport many people lived in their homes long before the airport was built.  The airport and the flights came to them.  But the numbers impacted by London City are set rise significantly even if expansion doesn’t take place due to the vast amount of construction taking place in and around Docklands.  According to official figures over 74,000 people could be significantly by noise from London City over the next few years – which would put it third in the UK behind Heathrow and Manchester.

I appreciate that most of the new homes will have a high standard of insulation and that most of the newcomers will be aware of the proximity of the airport but how clear will London City explain to potential residents the impact of any expansion plans the airport might have?

I do wonder if London City CEO Robert Sinclair was aware when made his remarks of the explosion of anger there would be from many in local communities, in local authorities and amongst politicians across the political spectrum if the airport was serious about wanting to lift the cap on flight numbers.  And, unlike Heathrow, the Government may not ride to its rescue.  It simply does not have the economic clout of Heathrow.  

26th October 2017: London City Airport is 30 years old

I first remember walking along the North Woolwich Road in 1978, the year I came to London.  The lively pubs my uncles – seamen from Scotland – had talked about were lively no more.  Much of the area was on its last legs.  The docks, which had provided so much employment for the area, were to close down just three years later, in 1981.

East London needed new sources of employment.  The Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, formed the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) to redevelop the area.  It was its chief executive Reg Ward who first proposed an airport in 1981.  Community reaction was mixed with polls showing a majority of local people supporting it but also much local opposition.  The then leader of the Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone, also opposed it.

However, it was given planning permission and commercial operations started on 26 October 1987 – thirty years ago.       

The new airport was allowed to go-ahead on the strict basis that there would be no more than just over 30,000 flights a year using turbo-prop aircraft, the famous “whispering” planes. 

Many long-term residents feel that the airport created in their midst would have been tolerable at that sort of level.

In 1989, however, just two years after its opening the airport owners submitted a planning application to extend the runway to allow the use of a larger number of aircraft types. 

In 1992 the application was approved and the extended runway opened in March of that year.  At the same time the glideslope was cut to 5.5 degrees to allow the larger aircraft to serve the airport.  The glideslope (the angle at which planes descend) had been 7 degrees so as to reduce the number of people disturbed by the noise.

1n 1998 approval was given to increase the number of passenger flights.

In 2002 a jet centre catering for business jets was opened.  They were not to be included in the total number of flights permitted to use the airport.

In 2009 the airport finally got permission to increase flights from a maximum of 80,000 – 120,000 a year.

So, within a dozen years, the number of aircraft permitted to use the airport had risen from 30,000 to 120,000.  Many local people felt betrayed.  Most had little option but to stay in the area.

Of course the airport brought jobs and, it is argued, attracted businesses to the area.  It is the reason why Newham Council, the planning authority, continued to back it.  Many local people saw it as an asset and welcomed the employment prospects it might offer their children growing up in what for many years was one of the poorest boroughs in the UK.

Only people who have never experienced the pain of unemployment would dismiss lightly any development which brings jobs.  As a boy I heard stories from an earlier generation of my family who had experienced the utter despair of not having a job during the Depression in 1930s Glasgow.

 It was this mission to create jobs and prosperity in East London that drove many councillors to back the expansion of the airport in the 1990s.  It was a noble aim but it did leave a litany of broken promises made to residents about the noisy neighbour in their midst.

Over the years London City has developed a credible record in assisting the very local community around the airport with compensation, mitigation, training and investment in local facilities.  It has done less well in looking beyond the immediate area to the impact of its flight paths on areas further afield.  The most startling example of this was its decision to concentrate all its flight paths in 2016.  Complaints jumped fourfold.

So, what is our 30th birthday message to City Airport?  You’ve created jobs which many people value.  But your activities also create air pollution and noise which can affect people’s health and quality of life.

So, three wishes as you move beyond thirty.

1. No further expansion – it is essential that the current cap on the number of planes allowed to use the airport remains.  It is expected that, because of the new housing planned for the area, London City could come to impact 74,000 people which would mean it would overfly more people in the UK than any airport except Heathrow and Manchester and almost twice as many as Brussels or Schiphol.

2. No concentrated flight paths – the concentrated flight paths have created noise ghettos in areas across east and south east London.  The Civil Aviation Authority is currently assessing how the flight paths have worked during their first year of operation.  A solution needs to be found which provides some relief for the people of the noise ghetto.

3. No increase in noise and pollution – planes are becoming a little quieter and cleaner.  The way to ensure residents benefit from that is to make sure that the current cap on the number of flights permitted to use it each year remains.

And one more thing.  Moving forward, no more broken promises?

John Stewart

Chair HACAN East

Why London City and Heathrow should liaise on key issues


by John Stewart

Most of us remember Blind Date with some affection.  Cilla Black’s match-making show attracted big audiences on a Saturday night.  Would the couple hit it off on their holiday together?  Would some of them even settle down with one another?

Heathrow and London City Airport need to go on a date.  There are some signs they are getting together.  I understand they are to meet.  What is needed, though, is a full-blown relationship in order to coordinate the key activities which impact on people living under the flight paths of both airports.

And, now more than ever, is the time to do it.  There will significant changes to flight paths over the next few years.  Some have already been made by London City when the airport concentrated its flight paths last year.  There are signs, though, it may be prepared to look again at these unpopular flight paths.  Heathrow will start consulting on new flight paths later this year..

Many of my friends in West London don’t fully realize the numbers impacted by both airports.  Vast swathes of East London from Tower Hamlets, through Newham, Waltham Forest and Redbridge and beyond are overflown by both Heathrow and London City aircraft.  A lot of South East London is similarly affected.

There are two keys ways in which the airports should work together.

One is in producing cumulative noise contours for the affected areas.  At present each airport draws up its own separate noise contours.  That cannot give a comprehensive or realistic picture of the total noise heard by residents.

The second is in coordinating their work on flight paths with the aim of ensuring that the communities overflown by both airports get meaningful breaks from the noise.

The technology now exists for aircraft to be guided more precisely.  It can be used to create multiple flight paths which, if used on a rotating basis, can give the periods of respite that would improve the quality of life for the people under flight paths.

HACAN remains opposed to a third runway at Heathrow because we fear the impact of quarter of a million extra planes a year on local communities but we would suggest that a firm condition of a new runway, if it is given the go-ahead, should be the requirement on Heathrow to work with London City on matters of common concern.

This is not a forced marriage.  Both airports would retain their independence and identity.  But, with the help of other bodies like NATS and the CAA, liaison on noise contours and flight paths is quite possible.  The links the two airports are beginning to make should be encouraged to develop into the sort of solid working relationship that ‘Our Cilla’ would have surely approved of.   

City Airport's Concentrated Flight Paths: 2017 may bring some Christmas cheer

Santa sensibly uses a sleigh rather than a plane to move across the world delivering our presents.  I share with my five year old nephew a sense of bewilderment how he manages it.  But both of us put it down to the wonder of Christmas.

If Santa Air did take to the skies this Christmas, I bet many of the people under London City Airport’s concentrated flight paths would be voting for the abolition of presents or at least for Santa to move with the times so that he made much more use of the internet.  I appreciate that going to Argos with your Santa ticket to collect your presents might slightly the dampen the Xmas spirit but it would reduce the number of flights Santa would have to make.

As we have reported throughout the year, many people have suffered badly since the introduction of the concentrated flight paths in February.

But there may be some Christmas cheer on its way.  London City has told HACAN East that it has not closed its mind to looking again at the concentrated flight paths.  It won’t happen immediately in 2017 for two reasons.  One, City needs to report to the Civil Aviation Authority on the existing concentrated flights paths first.  And, two, the Government will be consulting on its national Airspace Policy in the first half of 2017.   The Airport will probably await the outcome of this before coming up with any revised flight paths.  But there are indications that it doesn’t see the existing flight paths as set in stone.

I sense London City is becoming more of a listening airport.  Its Consultative Committee has been revamped.  There is a new recognition that its stakeholders stretch beyond the areas close to the airport.  It is making much more of an effort to reach out to all communities.

The proof of any changes will lie in the 2017 Christmas pudding.  Will the residents of Leyton, Leytonstone, Wanstead, Barking Reach, Dagenham, Eltham, Catford, Stockwell………be able to eat their 2017 Xmas dinner secure in the knowledge they no longer live under a concentrated flight path? That’s the best present Santa could bring them. 

John Stewart   


Posted on October 4, 2015

by John Stewart


The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is expected to announce its decision on whether London City Airport will be required to re-consult on it proposals to concentrate flight path over narrow corridors.

If the CAA allows London City’s flight path plans to go-ahead, it will be against all the laws of natural justice. Hundreds of thousands of people who never expected more than a small percentage of flights over their homes will get all the flights over them.

It is a story of rank injustice and it makes my blood boil.

The story begins in 2008. NATS (the air traffic controllers) carried out a consultation for flight path changes for an area known as Terminal Control North (TCN) which covers the airspace north of the Thames for Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City Airports.

The proposals caused uproar. They were dropped….except for the ones covering London City.

What NATS did not tell local residents that London City would not be able to operate the bigger planes it has started to use without the flight path changes. In other words, unlike all the other airports, NATS had no real option but to approve the City Airport changes.

This was never explained to the residents of East London. Or at least to the few who knew the consultation was taking place. It is a strong word to use but there is no doubt in my mind these residents were deceived into believing the authorities had the option of dropping these 2008 flight path changes.

They were needed because the larger jet planes could not make the tight turn when taking off that the smaller turbo-props which they were replacing could do.

It meant that many areas got a lot more planes – places like Bow, parts of Leyton, Leytonstone, Wanstead, Dagenham and parts of Havering.

But then in 2014 came the hammer blow. London City said it wanted to concentrate all the take-offs on those routes. And it argued that, because the change was largely replicating what was already happening, it was only required by the CAA to carry out a minimal consultation. All it did was put a technical document on its website and inform the supine Consultative Committee.

The concentration, which will also affect parts of South London, would mean that some areas would get 30% more planes than they do now.

The key point is that areas which 10 years ago were relatively undisturbed by London City aircraft are faced with the prospect of getting all the planes concentrated over them. And they have never been properly informed or consulted about it.

And it gets worse. Many of these areas are also overflown by aircraft flying into Heathrow. In fact, according to a study carried out by HACAN, Waltham Forest is the third most overflown borough in London after Hounslow and Richmond.

This cavalier treatment of their residents has infuriated local councils and was probably behind Boris Johnson’s recent rejection of London City’s plans to expand.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this is that the aviation industry simply doesn’t seem to grasp the impact these changes have on residents. HACAN East went to see the CAA, (which oversees all flight path changes) about the 2008 flight path changes. They simply did not grasp that moving a lot of planes even just a mile has a significant impact on residents, including those many miles from the airport. (A key problem at City Airport is that departing planes cannot take off steeply because of the Heathrow aircraft above them).

In recent years there has been controversy over flight path changes at Gatwick and Birmingham and trials at Heathrow and Edinburgh. The fury has startled the CAA and NATS, both of which are reviewing their procedures. We’d welcome constrictive dialogue with both bodies.

But what has happened at City Airport is the best advertisement there could be for an Independent Noise Authority to be in place to ensure fairness. Because what has happened to the people of East London is simply unfair.


by John Stewart

Last week the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, turned down City Airport’s application to expand on noise grounds.  Although the decision caught people by surprise, there was a widespread feeling that the airport had it coming because of the cavalier way it has dealt with residents, local authorities and elected politicians over the years.  I spelt this out in an opinion piece for the Newham Recorder:

 The question must arise:  would City Airport’s attitude have been different if it was dealing with a wealthier population?  We will never know for sure it certainly impacts on some of the poorest communities in the UK.

According to the latest Indices of Deprivation (2010), Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest are among 15 most deprived local authorities in the country. And Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Lewisham and Lambeth make it into the top 50.  Moreover, Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets have highest percentage of deprived people in the UK (1).

They will also be the communities which fly the least.  They are the victims of what Les Blomberg, the executive director of the US-based Noise Pollution Clearing House called ‘second-hand noise’:  “noise that is experienced by people who did not produce it.  Like second-hand smoke, it’s put into the environment without people’s consent and then has effects on them that they don’t have any control over.”

A good neighbour would tailor its strategy, and particularly its communications, to the needs of its communities.  In areas of real deprivation, variable online skills and limited access to technology, a good neighbour would ensure it provided plenty of leaflets and regular face-to-face meetings with the public.  It would make sure its materials were written in clear, simple language.

London City simply does not do this.  The recent consultation on its plans to concentrate its flight paths over particular communities was a prime example.  The consultation took the form of putting a technical document on its website and of informing its supine consultative committee.  Nothing more.  No leafleting of the areas that would be affected.  And by only consulting online, City Airport effectively disenfranchised a huge number of people.  Across the UK, 21% of people can’t operate online, but amongst C2, D and E classes it is 72%; and for those in 65+ bracket it is 52% (2).

 It is hard to avoid the conclusion that London City Airport, rather than trying to tailor its work to meet the needs of the area it impacts, is using the demographics of the area to get away with doing as little as possible.



 (2). Media Literacy: Understanding Digital Capabilities follow-up; Ipsos Mori, 2014


Opinion piece written by John Stewart, chair HACAN East, for the Newham Recorder


 Boris Johnson’s decision to refuse London City permission to expand may have come as a surprise but it was always on the cards that somebody would stand up to the airport.  London City is paying the price about being so cavalier about noise.

It has a history of refusing to engage with residents and elected councillors over its plans.  Last year it came up with proposals to concentrate its flight paths over certain communities yet it refused to leaflet the areas involved or come to talk with any local authority except Newham. Residents were frustrated, councillors were furious and the Greater London Authority wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport criticizing the airport’s behaviour.

In turning down the expansion application, the London Mayor showed he simply did not believe London City’s claims that an expanded airport, using larger planes, would mean less noise.

Newham is the one borough which has consistently – and controversially – backed the airport.  It does so on the basis it provides jobs.  In fact, the number of people employed by the airport is surprising small, less than 1,000, with another 2,000 or so jobs indirectly dependent on it.

Since the Mayor’s decision, London City spin doctors have gone into overdrive citing jobs that would be created by the expansion plans.  Be very wary! There are less jobs at the airport now than in 2009 when it said it would create 1,500.

The airport’s lack of honesty – be it about noise or jobs – has proved its downfall.  Local people, elected councillors and the Mayor of London simply don’t believe what it says.  Unless it cleans up it act, people may start to question whether East London needs it at all.  It has become the embarrassing relative amongst the exciting new developments which are taking place in the Royal Docks.