Living in the shadow of Heathrow and other major airports

A reporter travels to a neighborhood just next to the runways at Heathrow Airport and tries to understand how people live there:

It’s a nice perk, if you don’t mind the to and fro of planes overhead—one taking off or landing every 45 seconds, every day, every year. They soar within a few hundred feet of the rooftops, blocking the sky like giant aluminum birds. And they make a helluva racket too. “It’s almost deafening if you’re standing underneath,” says Bertie Taylor, who photographed Myrtle Avenue for his series Under the Flight Path.

Feltham has been a transportation hub since the early 20th century, when it hosted Britain’s second largest railway yard, targeted by German air strikes during World War II. But it didn’t become the consistently noisy place it is today until January 1, 1946, when an Avro 691 Lancastrian departed Heathrow for Argentina, marking the airport’s first flight. In the 1960s, its two main runways—one located just a quarter-mile northwest of Myrtle Avenue—were extended a few thousand feet to service even bigger planes like the Boeing 747.

Noise levels are allowed to reach up to 94 decibels during the day (equivalent to a jackhammer 50 feet away) and 87 decibels at night (a gas-powered lawn mower)—though they’ve fallen in recent decades with quieter engines and smarter flight paths. Still, last year Heathrow received an average of one noise complaint every seven minutes. Noise isn’t the only nuisance. Nearby communities also receive an extra dose of air pollution from vehicle and aircraft traffic, not to mention the occasional scare: In 2008, a Boeing 777 nearly slammed into Myrtle Avenue after its engines failed.

All this sounds nightmarish—and indeed, it troubles locals. But when Taylor visited Myrtle Avenue in September 2018, curious to see what life near an airport is like, folks seemed more irritated by having their driveways blocked in by planespotters’ cars. Aviation enthusiasts from as far as Germany and the Netherlands throng to the green park near the airport fence to ooh and aah at landing Airbus 380s and Boeing 777s. One middle-aged man even stood atop his van in a nearby field, livestreaming the spectacle on Facebook.

Humans can live in all sorts of conditions, including regular noise and visitors. So what would motivate these residents to stay in this location? A few hypotheses:

1. Housing is cheaper here. The noise would bother a lot of potential homeowners so a dwelling that might be more expensive elsewhere (and this is the expensive London region after all) might be less expensive.

2. Proximity to jobs, particularly in the transportation sector. For people with jobs at Heathrow or in something connected to the air industry, this could be a convenient location.

3. They grew up in this area or have long-term connections to the industries (railways, flying) in the community.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the residents do leave when one of these factors that once pushed them to stay becomes less important. With some personal experience living near a busy railroad line, I know people can get used to noise and rumbling but wouldn’t the average resident leave when they could?

Since airports are not usually too far from dwellings these days (they might have been in previous decades but many metropolitan regions have expanded), someone has to live near the airport. Maybe even some come to like it. But, living that close with the noise and the shadows is a different experience many homeowners would look to avoid.

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