Sheryl Herle awakes at 3 a.m. to a loud, drowning sound of something flying overhead her house. Her two children are sleeping, and she has to be up at 6 to get them ready for school, before getting herself to work. She rolls over, and tries to fall back asleep. Ten minutes later, she hears the same sound. She decides to just get up.
This is a common issue faced by residents in Sheryl’s neighbourhood (Lawrence Avenue/Avenue Road), because they live almost right underneath a busy highway — one that airplanes use to get to Pearson International Airport, that is. Maps of paths flights use to get into the airport show that almost no area in the Greater Toronto Area is safe from at least some noise, though some areas are undoubtedly much worse than others. The most frequently used runways are on the east and west sides of the airport. But since many flights come in from the north or south of the city, pilots need to turn, fly over central Toronto, and then execute a wide arc — swinging around 180 degrees in order to head in at the correct angle. This means that residents living in central Toronto who thought they weren’t close at all to the airport and associated noise are actually right underneath these busy “highways” where planes turn around.
In February of this year, flight patterns were changed to accommodate the influx of passengers coming in and out of Toronto via airspace. Ron Singer, manager of media relations for NAV Canada, says these changes have been a long time coming; the previous routes had been in place since the mid-1980s, when air traffic levels were a mere half of what they are today. The year 2011 saw a grand total of 33.4 million people pass through the airport, and in June of this year alone, 36,681 people moved through Pearson. Over 1,100 flights land at and take off from the airport on a daily basis — many of them come in at the same time, and all of them are directed by a staff of well-trained air traffic controllers who have to deal with volume, weather, and other conditions to make sure traffic flows smoothly.
Besides making sure airplanes take off and land without hitting each other, bad weather, or buildings, it’s also necessary to make sure they rise up to the right altitude, follow specific paths, and stay far enough away from residents in the GTA so as to avoid noise complaints. But that doesn’t always happen. Atmospheric conditions can bring planes closer to the ground or make noises appear louder, and the fact that Pearson is Canada’s biggest and busiest airport means planes come in at all hours — and night flights are notorious for being ill-received. But February’s changes actually reduced total cumulative flight time by ten hours, Singer says. In addition, the introduction of more accurate satellite technology to track planes (as opposed to the old ground-installed navigational aids) means that planes can fly closer to one other and more frequently. “It is like adding collector lanes on the highway,” Singer says.
But the steady increase of traffic has led to a need to introduce more flights overnight. In 2011, there were an average of 36 flights every night at Pearson. Night flights are mostly international and cargo flights; 20% of nighttime air traffic is allocated for rescheduled day flights due to bad weather or poor flying conditions. If Transport Canada approves a pending request for more flights, there will be a 5% increase in flight rate at the end of this year — bringing the total average night time flights to 42. That’s expected to continue increasing each year as demand increases.
NAV Canada is conscious that the idea of adding more night flights is not something that sits well with residents who are already unhappy having their nights punctuated by the sound of engines. But Pearson workers say they already take that into account. At night, only the quietest airplanes are used, and they go out of their way to fly into preferential runways that affect the fewest number of residential communities possible. In 2011, estimates say that approximately 66% of arrivals and 89% of departures used these runways. But still, noise complaints seem to be frequent. Frustrated residents don’t understand why flights paths can’t just be changed.
So is this a case of “Not In My Airspace,” or is it a sign that Pearson is just too close to its capacity, and it’s time to fast-track the construction of another airport?
Five years ago, Spacing’s Sean Marshall wrote about the proposed airport in Pickering. The land was acquired by the federal government 40 years ago and now sits, waiting for something to move on to it. Plans suggested two runways would be built by now, but there have been conflicting views about whether or not another airport really is needed — after all, Pearson isn’t supposed to reach capacity until 2027. But with so many noise complaints surrounding annual increases of flights, would it relieve a bit of that pressure by redirecting flights to somewhere close by? And by doing that, would we actually just be creating more problems by having planes fly over more communities that are currently unaffected? Alternatively, would a better option be finding different ways of local/national transport — railways, for example? This could decrease the number of planes going in and out of the airport, but the money and political will to support such a project is thin at all levels of government.
In the meantime, though, Torontonians like Sheryl Herle intend to continue to press for changes to flight paths — even though their efforts are likely in vain. “Short of just crying myself to sleep with frustration,” she says, “I simply don’t know what to do anymore. “We can’t continue to live here and yet moving means uprooting kids from their schools and the whole community life we’ve come to love over the last decade in our home.”