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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Community activism not enough to deviate Toronto flight paths

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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.”



  1. Is there a place to get a larger image of the map, or the report? I’m curious as I live very close to the flight path that comes in from the south over Lake Ontario. And, yes, when the wind is from the north, there’s basically a continuous stream of planes passing over Long Branch.

  2. Cry me a river. The planes are at least a few thousand feet above you, and you don’t even have to speak up to talk around them. This article feels like it is agenda driven by the author, which happens somewhat often in this publication.

  3. Anonymous Brian> You can disagree with the piece, but she signed her name to it. Secret agendas! Oh my.

  4. Hehe, I didn’t say *secret agenda* I said agenda.

    “But still, noise complaints seem to be frequent” to quote from the article. In 2011 there were 793 noise complaints for a total of 423,891 arrivals in departures. This is .00187%! Of those 793 complaints only 235 of which would have anything to do with the location noted in the article. Heck, only ~80 of the complaints came from where this article was was written. It should also be noted that those 793 complaints came from 275 callers. 275! 

    [2011 Noise Management Report]

    If this article was written from the perspective of a person living along Dixon Road near Martin Grove, who live right on the edge of the 30 NEF contour (which decides if housing should be built by the airport) than sure, I would have sympathy. But Lawrence and Avenue? I am sorry. This is a city you live in.

  5. Brian> whats the matter with having an agenda?

  6. @ScottD The issue I have with the agenda of the article is that it appears to be centred about one person’s complaint. A person who is *by far* not representative of the community most affected by changes at the Airport.

    My question on agenda comes from why is an article being written about an area not highly affected by noise from Pearson? Not affected highly by either the noise being produced, or even by the amount of complaints?

    The Torontoist, on the other hand, mentions an area of Toronto that has been affected in a real way by the changes, Dixon.

    The building of a new runway (24L-06R) meant that noise in this neighbourhood went up significantly. As background, in planning for airports, there is a system used to help plan around overall noise levels from the airport. The model used is called the Noise Exposure Forecast (NEF). It is a based on the overall noise level one would find at an airport. If the number is 30 or higher, it is seen as too much for residential, unless there is special soundproofing done to the house. Even then, it is not suggested. 

    If you look at the map below, you can see that the NEF levels are 25-30 in Dixon. As mentioned in the Torontoist article, noise went up since the 24L-06R runway was built. The area described in this article is *well* outside the map area.

    The policy question broached at the end of the article (moving to trains for more local travel), while interesting and worthwhile, will not, in my opinion, answer the question of noise to any large degree. If you look at Paris CDG airport as a model of intermodal travel (it has deep connections to the French TGV network), it shows how a major airport is affected by such links. In 2002 it handled 48,358,499 passengers. In 2011 60,970,551. The connectivity, it can be argued, actually made the airport *more* popular. And this doesn’t even take into consideration complaints about noise and pollution from those affected who live around high-speed trains.

  7. Reporting on one person’s POV does not make the writer of the article pushing an agenda.

    No matter, the resident has a right to complain and is an example of how airport traffic can affect different people in different ways. I lived on the waterfront for a while and hated the noise from Porter planes. People on the other side of my building never heard them.

    Also, reading the Torontoist story is like going to the dentist — hardly anyone on that blog can write well.

  8. “This article feels like it is agenda driven by the author, which happens somewhat often in this publication.”

    Spacing is essentially an opinions-based blog — and a magazine that has an unabashedly urbanist POV. So, yeah it happens often.

    But, Amber has no agenda as she’s a deep west-ender with an interest in flight paths.

  9. I admit I’m tempted to side with Brian’s philosophy on this one — it is the city. City has stuff in it. Stuff makes noise sometimes. Though if some things can be mitigated within reason, then we should.

  10. I appreciate all the comments here, and have to admit – I have no issue with airplanes above my head. I attend Humber College, where you can barely speak outside above plane noises. But I understand that’s because of where it’s located – no complaints here. We were told about resident groups that have formed to target noise caused by airplanes – whether these groups have legitimate concerns or not isn’t the question. There is something here that is clearly worth looking into, and what I found was interesting. I personally don’t think this is one-sided. I’m pointing out what each side has said. But, as Matt noted, I live in the west end of the city – not where people I’ve spoken to for this article are – and I’m telling their story. It’s up to you as the reader to take the facts and do with them as you like. 

  11. I have a hard time believing Sheryl. I’ve lived for about 30 years under A3 near Jane Street and have never awoken at 3 am or at any other time of the day/night due to aircraft noise.  You can however hear it outdoors, especially on overcast days. The article would be better served with reporting sound levels from her home rather than anecdotal evidence. 

  12. Noise affects different people differently. I can appreciate the fact that Sheryl is very troubled by the noise she perceives. But as long as the annual complaint remains on the same magnitude (275 callers assuming Brian’s data is correct), then I see no way out for her other than moving.

  13. High speed rail would take some of the pressure off, as short-distance flights to Montreal and Ottawa make up a fair amount of Pearson’s traffic. It would be a good investment.

    It would only put off the need for the Pickering Airport though, not eliminate it. Toronto will need it someday.

  14. If anyone is curious, here are the changes that occurred on Feb 2\Airspace\Toronto\Runways_23_24RL\default.xml 

    To make it easier to look at, I made a couple of images with a white dot marking where Lawrence Avenue/Avenue Road is on the Before / After. The image can be found here:

    I am confused. The area described in the article was not affected negatively by the change. Other areas, sure. But not Lawrence Avenue/Avenue Road. 

    I apologize for my quick initial write off of the article as agenda. The article wasn’t making sense to me, and with the story of person vs. organization I assumed a personal interest. Sorry.

    I am still awfully confused by the complaints noted in the story given the changes described in the Transport Canada document, and how few of the complaints to the Airport come from this area of the city.

  15. @Thomas: While it would, I agree, I think it would only be a short term fix. At most 112 arrivals/departures a day are from Ottawa and Montreal. There are about 1200 arrivals/departures a day at Pearson. So about 9.4% of movements. Overall traffic went up 4.7% last year, and is up 4.8% this year.
    Paris (as mentioned above) and Frankfurt are two examples of airports with tight integration of regional and long distance high-speed rail, and they are expanding as well, at about the same rate.

    We do need high-speed rail. I am all for it. But it too will have negative consequences of noise and other types of pollution, just as Pearson does.

  16. Just out of curiosity, how do the Weston folks like the idea of rail intensification?

  17. For the most part, Weston complaints, shared by many transit activists, refer to technology choice (diesel), related tall sound barriers, road & station closures or inferior replacements, the decision to bi-pass transit friendly communities along the rails and the rumoured cost of $25 – too expensive for most riders including the thousands of airport workers. The $25 is just one of the estimates since the price has not yet been revealed.
    There’s a billion dollars being invested in a corridor that didn’t go through a cost/ benefits analysis because we were told that the private sector (SNC Lavalin) would pay all costs.

  18. Sorry but i have 0 sympathy for someone at Avenue Rd and Lawrence, this is well outside an area where aircraft noise should be an issue. If you have problems with airplanes waking you there I would talk to your doctor about options, or start wearing ear-plugs to bed.

    I live near Derry & McLaughlin in Mississauga, you want to complain about airplane noise come to my neighborhood and see what it’s really like! I don’t complain.

  19. Hey “sleepless in Toronto” herself here…. Glad to see the article getting a response. I was hoping the article would talk more about the urban planning issues. Our ‘hood was never designed to be under a flight path, with thousands of residents, schools, etc. and few would buy into it if they knew of the flight annoyance (not to mention common health issues related to living under a flight path. Lots of studies and articles out there about other major cities struggling with the same issues. Take some time to Google “flight path noise”). We can’t just up and redesign our neighborhoods but flight traffic could be redirected.

    To correct misconceptions in the comments, it’s certainly not just me with the concerns. Thousands of us hate the airline traffic that was suddenly redirected over our homes in the last 2 yrs but few even know that you can complain or who to complain to. Hint: go here… Sadly, those of us who have filed complaints feel it’s fruitless. Before you believe the complaints stats, you also need to realize they they don’t count multiple complaints from a household. Trust that we’re not over sensitive. This is not a case of light urban background noise when we can read the serial #s off the bottoms of the planes (Not joking! I know I have had laser eye surgery but c’mon, they really shouldn’t be flying that low). Keep up the debate and conversation! At least this is raising awareness.

  20. You want aircraft noise? Come down to the West End near Trinity Bellwoods Park and listen to the constant buzz of “pleasure” aircraft, bankers’ boat planes heading to Muskoka, network news helicopters and of course, ORNGE helicopters.

    The ORNGE helicopters I can live with – they’re an essential service. And at least scheduled aircraft movements heading in and out of YYZ and YTZ are serving a purpose, connecting us to places near and far. But is the (barely regulated) sunset tour of Toronto in a rickety old Cessna really necessary? The CTV helicopter flying over a traffic accident for 1 hour?

  21. I’m sorry, I too have to agree with Brian on this one. All of the available documentation confirms that Lawrence and Avenue Road isn’t even under the flight paths (old *or* new).

    Come visit me at Leslie and Sheppard sometime (which is just east of the bulk of the 180-degree turns before final approach). Sometimes it gets a little loud in my backyard in the evenings, but I never hear aircraft inside the house (even on the cooler nights when the windows are open).

    I also observe that the problem used to be much worse – aircraft manufacturers have spent decades reducing the noise output of aircraft.

    Maybe Sheryl’s house needs better insulation? Not only will the noise be reduced, she’ll save money on heating and cooling ;).