Aviation is

a Health Issue

Facts, literature, and key solutions for reducing aviation’s noise and pollution

  • Flying, while often depicted as a care-free and convenient mode of transport, is actually detrimental to human health. While this is especially true for those flying frequently like cabin crew, pilots and frequent business travellers, people who do not fly also bear the consequences.
  • Aircraft noise can lead to wide-ranging health issues. In particular, residents in the vicinity of airports are negatively impacted by take-offs and landings during the night. Curfews exist at some airports and should be expanded.
  • The burning of aircraft fuel releases pollutants that cause thousands of premature deaths. A major problem are ultrafine particles, which penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Good measuring and strict air regulations for areas surrounding airports must be implemented.
  • Aircraft noise, emissions and the related health issues fall disproportionately on low-income communities and airport workers, often including a significant number of people of colour and marginalised populations.
  • While technological advancements can help reduce some noise and pollutants, these reductions are eaten up by the increase in yearly flight numbers. Some noise and pollution mitigation options may inflict slight raises in carbon emissions.

Reducing the number of flights and stopping airport expansion are the best solutions to counter both health issues and climate breakdown. Residents, health organisations, the climate movement and workers can build powerful coalitions to achieve a fair reduction of aviation, and a healthier future for all.

Corrigendum: Please note that a new version of the report went online on the 27th of February 2024, correcting an error concerning Frankfurt airport noise related health effects.

How to tackle Aircraft Noise Pollution?

Stricter Rules on Noise!
In most cases, noise levels exceed existing regulations, if there are any at all. Good regulations and their enforcement should therefore be a priority.

  • Noise monitoring has to be obligatory around all airports.
  • Noise mapping must be made transparent and publicly available.
  • The allowed average exposure levels have to be reduced to at least WHO recommendations of 45dB Lden and 40dB Lnight.
  • Active mitigation is better than passive measures (e.g. sound-proofing windows): the latter lead to forced adaptation where society ‘learns’ to ‘live’ with the noise.

No planes at night!
Take-offs and landings overnight are particularly problematic for people’s health and well-being. For this reason, night flight bans should be established at all airports.

Improved Operational Practices?

  • Steeper ascents and descents and a continuous descent approach can reduce noise and health impacts. However, steeper ascents potentially use more fuel and can spread noise to other communities.
  • Air traffic controlling (like Performance Based Navigation PBN) can create more direct flight paths and therefore more efficient operations. While the FAA argues that PBN can help design flight paths to avoid noise sensitive areas, this can also mean that aircraft noise disturbs the same communities day in and day out.

Prioritising noise mitigation in heavily populated areas and considering social and environmental justice aspects of chosen flight paths is therefore especially important.

Better technologies?
While advancements in aircraft design can help reduce aircraft noise by 0.2 dB each year, reductions are eaten up by the vast increase in yearly flight numbers. What’s more, the sector will need to be forced to make this costly switch through tough regulations and powerful protests. Trends in engine design for improved fuel efficiency may also lead to more engine noise.

Reduce air traffic!
The most effective way to reduce noise pollution is to reduce the number of flights. Banning night fights, heavy long-haul flights, ultrasonic flights and non-essential short-haul and private jet flights are good ways to start.

How to tackle air pollution?

A variety of measures can help to mitigate aviation’s air pollution – the most effective ones being reducing air traffic and introducing cleaner fuels:

Stricter rules on pollution and particles!
Particle number concentrations are a good indicator of general air quality and should not exceed WHO exposure levels. Around airports, particles (including ultrafine particles) can and should be monitored to act as a basis for regulating air traffic. Aircraft regulations need to address the full range of emissions and be constructed in ways that result in air quality improvements. This is not always the case, as for instance in France.

Technical improvements?
These can help but will require regulation in order to be adopted by the aviation industry:

  • Reduced fuel sulphur content would reduce UFP and their related health impacts. While car fuels must have reduced sulphur content, jet fuels are not yet subject to the same requirements. Jet fuels should be subjected to at least the same standards as automotive fuel.
  • Reduced aromatics would reduce soot (fine and ultrafine particulate matter) and contrails. Current jet fuel contains roughly 18% aromatics, which could easily be reduced to 8% as a first step. Further engine optimisation to reduce NOx emissions without increasing CO2. However, this is increasingly difficult.
    Low-aromatic fuels and low-NOx engines would also reduce aviation’s non-CO2 effects, which make up two-thirds of its climate impact. Fuel desulphurisation alone would increase warming, but if done together with reducing aromatics, there would actually be a net cooling effect. Regulating fuel composition and engine emissions should be a priority, as both are technically feasible and would bring immediate results.
  • Limiting the use of jet engines on the ground through electric or single engine taxiing, and avoiding the use of auxiliary power units (APUs) thanks to external electricity and pre-conditioned air supplies
  • Electric aircraft would not cause emissions themselves, but could still use electricity from fossil fuels or require a disproportionate amount of renewable energy. The heavy weight of their batteries means that for the decades to come, they could only replace small engines and short-haul flights – whereas shifting these to the rail would be more sustainable.
  • So-called Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are currently hyped as a climate solution. If blended with fossil fuels, they would only lower soot and SO2 emissions, not NOx and CO. Reductions will only come about slowly, as the mixing rate increases: the EU is aiming for only 6% in 2030, 34% in 2040 and only 70% in 2050. Producing SAFs in a sustainable way and on the scale envisioned, that is, without questioning the growth of the sector, is highly unlikely and could lead to new problems.
  • Hydrogen-powered engines would get rid of most air pollutants but still emit NOx. It is highly unlikely that we will see hydrogen-powered medium- and long-haul flights before 2050, let alone ‘green’ hydrogen in sufficient quantities.

Reduce air traffic!

We may wait a quarter century – or longer – for technological step-changes to come to fruition. Meanwhile, people will continue to suffer from pollution every day. Moreover, growth in the aviation industry will ultimately counter attempts to reduce pollution. The easiest and most efficient solution to reduce air pollution is to reduce the number of flights and airports.


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