The future of Bristol Airport promises to be one of the biggest issues of next year’s mayoral election, just as it was the focus of what seemed like an entire year’s worth of protest this year from environmental activists.
For generations, Bristol Airport has been ever-present on the southern edge of the city, from the days when Bristolians referred to it as ‘Lulsgate’ – to differentiate it from the huge airstrip at Filton, through the boom in cheap package holidays in the 1970s and 80s, to the present day.
If you stand on one Bristol’s many hilltops and look south at any moment of the day, it’s likely there’ll be a plane skirting the city, above the familiar ridge of Dundry Hill.
But what is it like living with the airport as more of an every day presence than that? What’s it like to live under the flightpath, or on the roads that lead to it?
Richard O’Sullivan spent much of his childhood in Stockwood looking up at the sky. He’s grown up and is a father and now, after 35 years on this southern edge of the city, under the flight path, he’s moved down the hill a bit to Brislington, and has noticed the difference.
(Image: Richard O’Sullivan)
“I’ve noticed that I don’t hear or see them so much. Up in Stockwood, they are always there, overhead.
“We used to spend our time when we were kids looking out of the windows at the planes, and now it’s nice when I take my four-year-old back up to my mum’s we do the same. She loves it.
“She understands that the ones tilted up are going away on holiday, she always says they are going to Spain for some reason, and the ones titled down are just going to the airport,” he added.
The runway at Bristol Airport is aligned roughly on the east-west line, so planes taking off and landing will be on a path that either includes Yatton and Weston-super-Mare or the countryside to Stockwood and Keynsham.
On any given day, the planes will take off and land in the same direction – dependent mainly on the wind. Most of the time – around 70 per cent – that means the planes arrive and land from the east, and those departing end up and away to the west.
(Image: Bristol Airport)
At the airport they call this Runway 27, as opposed to Runway 09, when the planes come in over Weston to land, and take off and climb up over the edge of South Bristol. The numbers are derived from the compass point heading, and for Richard’s little daughter, the prevailing wind means she only gets to see her favourite, less than a third of the time.
“She much prefers the ones going up,” he joked. “She’s fascinated by them, and will tell a story about where they are going, but the ones pointing down she’s just like ‘oh they’re just coming home’, which is far less interesting.
“There is more now than there used to be when I was a kid, obviously. It’s just increased gradually over time. But personally, I think it’s great to see, I don’t think people in Stockwood have a problem with it – it’s just part of our lives,” he added.
“I’ve flown myself into and out of Bristol Airport. The last time I flew in from Europe, and we banked round and I was able to look out of the window and it’s pretty cool to see your own house. If you know the geography of where you live, you can easily pick out the roads and the houses, even from up that high,” he added.
(Image: Bristol Airport)
For people living in Keynsham, Stockwood, Hengrove and the little villages to the south of the city, having planes descending from thousands of feet above your head is such a part of everyday life, that it’s barely noticeable now.
It’s only when something unusual happens that the locals are jolted out of their familiarity.
Back in August, a holiday flight in from Palma in Mallorca was descending nicely on the usual path just to the south of Stockwood, using ‘Runway 27’ as normal.
But the police helicopter was crossing up ahead, so the pilot had to delay his approach by a minute or two. On board the plane, and in the control tower, it was routine – a fairly tight by easily manageable circle-around, at 2,225ft.
On the ground, however, it seemed the whole of Stockwood looked up. For rather than a plane coming in with the usual background noise, here was a plane banking above them – and the acoustics of that meant suddenly it was very loud, and very immediate.
One resident who stopped to watch the unusual manoeuvre was David Millard.
He said: “It was the noise that first alerted me to something out of the norm – I’m used to the sound of planes coming in and the route they take.
“This was way way louder and so I looked out of the back windows and saw the plane at about the usual height but turning tightly towards Whitchurch and away from Dundry and the usual flight path in.
“I watched it loop away and go all the way back around and come in again. The noise was clearly putting power back on and also being closer to our house than usual. I assumed either a fault with plane, problem on runway given was on final landing run or that was avoiding another aircraft,” he added.
One local mum was on a dog walk with her daughter at The Coots end of the Stockwood Nature Reserve when she and everyone else in the park stopped to watch.
“We heard it first and then saw it flying directly over our heads,” she said.
“It was so loud, but amazing – we all just stood and watched it.
“It was low but not low enough to be a concern. I said to my daughter it probably had to make a last minute diversion to come off the usual flight path. We were directly under it so only saw the under carriage,” she added.
That was an exception – usually the planes will criss-cross the sky and make those circles much higher, all over the Bristol area, to get into position, and be lined up on the 270 or the 90 to begin their descent.
In Stockwood or Yatton, the presence of the airport is made known in the 2,000ft above their heads. The closer you get to the airport itself, what happens on the ground is much more important to people.
David and Fiona Tonkin live close, down one of the side roads that come off the A38, the only main road that connects the airport with the rest of the world.
They said they were used to the airport, use it at least twice a year themselves, and appreciate its handiness at being so close.
(Image: Western Daily Press)
“Our position is not against the airport,” said Fiona. “We use it at least twice a year, it is a fine airport and being just ten minutes away has its advantages.”
When the couple first heard the airport had plans to expand, they took a bit of notice. “My thoughts were ‘they will get it so don’t try to object, but channel our efforts into planning gain’,” she added.
But two months ago, for the first time in their lives, they have become active about campaigning about the airport, and have joined a growing number of people in these villages of North Somerset, fighting the expansion plans.
“We have been active – for the first time in our life – in challenging the airport. For our part I have been campaigning door to door with leaflets,” she added.
There have always been people who live near Bristol Airport who don’t like it, and campaign against it. Traditionally, that’s been about the noise, night flights, the takeover of unauthorised and unofficial parking companies, and the traffic.
Now, the expansion plans have sparked a merging of micro and macro campaigns – the villagers of Felton worried about an increase in traffic and rat-runs, have joined forces with Bristol’s and North Somerset’s climate change activists, worried about carbon footprints of millions more passengers on jet planes.
“Our position is: When is Bristol Airport big enough? – the size of the airport in our view has already outstripped the infrastructure that is available to the airport,” said Fiona.
“A comparison with the other UK airports in terms of the road infrastructure, should tell you something. There are many interesting and involved transport schemes talked about, but firstly the airport should not expand until these schemes are started, and secondly we have had campaigns for nearly 30 years to expand the A38 to dual carriageway so any thoughts of tunnels, trains or whatever need to be taken with a pinch of salt, I think,” she added.
Whereas perhaps 30 years ago, the increase in flights meant a noise headache for the residents of the Lulsgate area, two things have happened.
The first is that planes have become quieter. Secondly, builders have got better at sound-proofing homes.
So much so that, for Francine Watson, an estate agent at Knight Frank, being near the airport is actually a selling point.
“For developers, schemes that are within easy reach of an airport have a strong selling point, given the continued year-on-year growth of air travel globally,” she said.
“Being within close proximity to an airport can, in some cases, add value to a property.
“Modern new build houses are likely to be more soundproof than older homes and, as a result, being near a flight path is proving to be less of a concern for potential purchasers than it has been in the past,” she added.
(Image: John Adams)
Combatting the noise is something fairly easily remedied too – in fact, Bristol Airport announced earlier this year that it was prepared to pay for extra soundproofing – up to £7,500 per house – as part of its expansion project.
But while it can be a plus point if you live ten minutes from the airport, what’s not so great is that everyone else has to drive down your road to get there.
One of the key factors in Bristol mayor Marvin Rees’ ‘City Plan’ vision for a new mass transit system for the whole of Bristol is the airport. Connecting the terminal at Lulsgate with the rest of Bristol by something more substantial than a regular Airport bus service, is the first goal of the ambitious plan for what’s been described as a ‘tube network’ for Bristol.
He sees the expansion of the airport as being the trigger for the investment that will create a new rail connection, and said he supports the airport expansion because otherwise, other airports will expand anyway, and Bristol Airport, and therefore Bristol itself, will be left behind.
And that’s without also factoring in the jobs boost an expanded airport – already a major employer in South Bristol – will provide to the people living on the southern edge of the city, in places like Withywood and Hartcliffe, which are among the most economically deprived places in Britain.
John Adams lives nearby – in fact his house is exactly one mile and 50 yards from the eastern end of the runway. However, his main issue is not the planes coming in over his head, but the people in the cars trying to get to the airport.
His heart sinks every time the lanes around his home are clogged by seemingly endless queues of traffic, while the A38 itself is usually a slow-moving trundle of hundreds of cars in a line, most of the time on most days.
(Image: John Adams)
“The A38 is a local road maintained by North Somerset Council and copes well with the demands of local traffic. However the recent growth of Bristol Airport has created a frequent congestion on a section of the A38 between the new link road at Bedminster Down and Churchill,” said John, who has volunteered as a leader of the local residents’ group trying to stop the airport expansion.
“With no rail access the Airport is sucking large numbers of cars onto the A38, pushed to the limit when traffic is diverted from the M5,” he said.
Whenever there’s a problem on the A38 – a crash or some roadworks – people’s satnavs direct them into the lanes, the lanes get clogged up, and John gets out there with his camera. He said he’s regularly seen drivers getting frantic as the time to their flight ticks down, road rage and panic attacks.
“There are few options on the A38 when things go wrong. With little alternative access to the airport, any incident or roadworks on this section of the A38 results in traffic diverting into small country lanes.
(Image: John Adams)
“This has led to people jammed in cars for several hours leading to arguments, panic attacks and wrecked travel plans,” he added.
And it’s not just when the A38 is blocked that the rural roads around the airport are affected. Those unofficial car parking sites play their part too, John said.
“Airport traffic is already using the lanes as a rat run to avoid the A38 and to reach unauthorised and illegal parking sites.
“These lanes are already used by local residents, by agricultural traffic, cyclists, walkers, horse-riders as well as wildlife – deer, badgers, pheasant and so on.
“The lanes are no longer safe as shared routes,” he said.
The answer isn’t to expand the roads, said John. It’s to get expand the airport buses, the park and ride sites and get those 50 families stuck in 50 cars on his lane into two buses or one train.
(Image: Sam Lakner)
Those unofficial car parks are, along with the traffic, the main bane in the lives of those villagers living closest to the airport. If it’s not the cowboy car parking firms that will leave cars entrusted to them anywhere they can find, it’s the passengers themselves not willing to pay to park in legit car parks.
Tensions rise in the height of the August holiday period, as cars are parked on village lanes are left for a fortnight. Sometimes, the worst offenders return to find villagers have hit back, like last year, when this car was clingfilmed and egged, with passive aggressive notes veering towards the latter left on the windscreen.
Another local resident, Adrian Gibbs lives within sight of the planes taking off and landing. As the years have gone by, he said he has seen the increase in plane numbers and feels ‘saddened’. And being so close to the airport, at a time when there is a climate emergency, has changed his life.
“The airport is a constant presence in my life, and one that frustrates and deeply troubles me,” he said.
(Image: Adrian Gibbs)
“Of course there’s the day to day annoyances – aircraft noise, road traffic, pollution – that kind of thing. But for me, the saddest thing is that every plane I see taking off and landing is a reminder a profit driven industry with no regard for the environmental harm caused,” he added.
“Last year’s terrifying 1.5 degree report from the IPCC prompted me to commit not to fly, and to look for further ways to decarbonise my life. I’m very aware that, for any individual, not flying is a hard choice to make when economics, convenience and marketing all pull us towards the departure lounge.
“But the sobering truth is that these luxuries and freedoms enjoyed today, are putting a critical toll on our future.
“Nonetheless, I’m hopeful that for each additional person that recognises this climate emergency and moves to minimise their air travel, the sooner we will start to get on top of these problems,” he added.
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