For Whom the Decibels Toll: The Night before Andrew Martin Took His First Flight, at the Age of 13, He Couldn't Sleep for Excitement. These Days He's Rather Less Happy about the Planes That Keep Him Wide Awake

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In deep countryside you have a view of the stars at night. In London you might see what you think is a star, but it will immediately begin bustling towards you, blinking furiously and accompanied either by a whine, similar in sound and effect to the dentist's drill, or by a grating roar, like somebody dragging a heavy packing case across the floor of the flat above.

I took my first flight at the age of 13. It would have been 1975. Destination: Innsbruck, on a school skiing trip, and I didn't sleep for excitement the night before. The carrier was Dan Air, which sounds--intentionally, for all I know--like Dan Dare. I loved aeroplanes at that point, but I have a different view now. That business of familiarity breeding contempt, I suppose. It's not that I fly very often; it's just that I live in central north London.

We're 20 miles from Heathrow here, and five years ago aircraft noise was not a factor. Today ... well, a poll conducted by our MP showed that 45 per cent in the constituency are troubled by it, and I can watch those distant stars mutating into aeroplanes every 90 seconds for hours on end. It's grotesque but also fascinating, like watching a magician who produces not just one handkerchief from his hat but dozens and dozens in rapid succession.

In October I made my way by bike, under the aeroplane-filled night sky, to Westminster Central Hall, where a meeting was being held to mark the end of the public consultation on government proposals for extra night flights at Heathrow and Stansted. The mood was one of muted fury. After all, whenever protesters and the aviation industry have done battle, the latter has always won, or been allowed to win by governments. As though still transfixed by the miracle of manned flight, British governments have given the aviation industry everything it has wanted ever since it began, and none has been more generous than the present one, whose white paper of 2003 envisages a threefold increase in civil aviation over the next 30 years. The pattern has been as follows: government/aviation industry proposal for expansion; consultation; expansion plan proceeded with. (The consultation is conducted so that the British Airports Authority--BAA--can begin press releases, "After extensive consultation ...")

But as the preparations for the meeting continued, a frisson of excitement began to develop. People just kept on streaming into the room allocated to the meeting, so we had to shift into the biggest one in the building; then the MPs entered. I have seldom seen so many in one place outside parliament--more than 40 in all. As they spoke, they ranged beyond night flights, and speaker after speaker made the same point: that the untrammelled expansion of aviation has become more than worrying; it is horrific. It is a slow disaster for the character of London and the countryside. As for carbon emissions, it is as though Britannia, diagnosed as suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, were to treat herself to a few cases of whisky. Aviation is the fastest-rising cause of our carbon emissions, and one of the easiest to check--as Tony Blair, at the UN climate-change conference in Montreal, is presumably rather guiltily (if silently) aware.


Let's stick with noise for a minute, though. Here's a scenario from the past five years. You buy a property in the south-east of England. Not a property under one of the predetermined noise preference routes (NPR), along which planes leaving airports are supposed to stick until 4,000ft high. No, a quiet property in a quiet area. After a year or so, you notice an aeroplane overhead. It is approaching the airport, subjecting you to the dentist's drill noise, but it's a novelty, and beautiful, as individual aircraft are. A day later there's another. Soon, there are a dozen a day ... twenty a day ... fifty ... a hundred ... five hundred.

You investigate, and realise that incoming planes go only where the air-traffic controllers send them. …