Aircraft noise ruins lives, but some imaginative economists are coming to its victims’ rescue
Sunday August 5, 2007
Standing in Heathrow gazing at the dazed queues, I wondered if any writer could capture the frazzled experience of being stuck in a second-rate shopping centre tacked on to a third-rate transport system. ‘It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase “as pretty as an airport” appear,’ said Douglas Adams, who caught the ugliness. ‘I did not fully understand the dread term “terminal illness” until I saw Heathrow for myself,’ said Dennis Potter, who caught the desolation.
At the moment, though, we are not seeing Adams’s distaste or Potter’s despair but a rage about what airports do. The day before I was at Heathrow, two Americans, furious at the wait for passport control, spoilt a photo-opportunity for the head of the new border control agency. Earlier in the week, business leaders had warned that terrible airports threatened the City’s growth and an international survey named British Airways as the European airline most likely to lose your luggage.
Meanwhile, BAA showed the insolence of private monopolies everywhere by seeking a sweeping injunction to stop protesters against the new Heathrow runway coming within miles of the airport, an unintentionally telling attack on civil liberties, given that its customers wouldn’t come within miles of its airports if they had the choice.
Passengers are infuriated. Environmentalists are infuriated. Nice liberal columnists are admitting to feeling guilty about the contribution their flights to Tuscany will make to global warming, although not guilty enough to cancel their holidays. But I’ve never heard anyone say that they feel angry or guilty about the noise their flight will inflict as it leaves the runway and roars over suburban streets. No one who lives outside a flight path mentions noise pollution, yet John Stewart of umbrella group Airport Watch told me that anger about noise, rather than climate change, drives most members of the protest movements against the expansion of air travel.
Just as little things annoy people about airports – the limits on hand luggage, the staff cuts and ‘a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort,’ as Douglas Adams said – so the unhappiness caused by aircraft noise seems to outsiders to be out of all proportion to the inconvenience. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University and the co-author of ‘The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not so Bad’, sympathises with the afflicted, however. Gilbert and his colleagues conducted experiments to show that intense emotions pass because the brain finds ways of compensating for the pain and anger, but small, niggling irritations infuriate without release.
Intuitively, their conclusions feel right. If someone’s partner or child dies, you expect them to feel intense grief, but don’t expect that passionate misery will continue unabated. Indeed, if you met someone whose pain at a bereavement was as poignant 10 years on as it was on the day of the death, my guess is that you would regard them as unhinged.
It’s the little annoyances that dig their claws in. Professor Gilbert told me that aircraft noise was particularly grating because it was unpredictable. The brain learns to tune out ‘things that are constant or periodic’ – a steady roar of traffic, for instance – but is thrown by the irregular.
John Stewart added that a feeling of powerlessness united the citizens who have formed the anti-airport protest groups. If, contrary to Professor Gilbert, they found the roar of traffic intolerable, they knew that they could move from a main road to a cul-de-sac, he said. ‘But with aircraft, they feel that wherever they move, the flight paths will follow them. They think there’s no escape.’
The growth of air travel and the unwillingness of politicians to tax it mean their fears aren’t wholly irrational. If nice liberal columnists and politicians will wring their hands but still take the cheap flights, the rest of the population will hop on them without a moment’s remorse.
Theirs seems a hopeless case, but the new social science of ‘happiness economics’ may give them unexpected power. Despite the publicity, most people still don’t know what happiness economics is and many who think they do imagine that it is a vaguely hippyish dogma of the sort that appeals to David Cameron or Anita Roddick.
In truth, there’s nothing soppy about it. Economists around the world are using it to put hard figures on pleasure and misery. To take a very simple example, suppose you are asked how happy you are on a scale of one to 10 and you say: ‘Five.’ The next year, your pay doubles from £20,000 to £40,000 and you say you now feel at ‘six’. If you are fired a year later and your happiness falls to two, a statistician can claim that your unhappiness, at £20,000 a point, would be worth £80,000.
In every developed country, economists are taking the data from government and academic surveys and making similar calculations, but on a vast scale. They are finding that, on average, unemployment brings an unhappiness that is out of all proportion to the loss of income and that long-distance commuting is everywhere far more stressful than previously thought, as, indeed, is noise from aircraft.
Dutch economists looked at people living on the flight paths into Amsterdam airport. They found that they weren’t compensated for the noise by cheaper house prices, because Amsterdam, like most British cities, doesn’t have an efficient property market that allows its residents to make neat trade-offs. They calculated that the cost in misery from aircraft noise was about £1.60 per flight. Start a meter running in every house on an urban flight path and you quickly reach enormous figures.
In other words, people living near British airports could sue. Going to the courts may seem a fanciful prospect. But no one has ever accused lawyers of being slow to find new ways of drumming up business, and last week Chicago University’s Law School held the world’s first conference on the legal implications of the new research on happiness. Everyone agreed they were enormous.
BAA and the airlines seem like overmighty subjects beyond the control of government and customers. But if the happiness economists are right, they may soon be cut down to size by colossal claims for compensation. It couldn’t happen to nicer people.