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Equal Suffering: for a just distribution of airplane flight routes

There is a long-standing debate in Belgium over the choice of flight routes around the national airport located northeast of the capital, Brussels. A plan last year that reorganized departure routes, routing the majority over densely populate areas of the capital, was met with strong protest from Brussels residents who now had to endure noise nuisance they didn’t have under the previous routes. Noise nuisance from airplanes is, according to recent studies, linked to an important increased risk (10-20% higher likelihood) of stroke, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, and death. Assuming 1) that there is an unavoidable amount of flights above populated areas and 2) that it is impossible to fully deaden the noises thereby engendered, what would constitute a just distribution of flight routes? In other words, what is a just distribution of suffering and risks caused by plane nuisance? In this post we present three possible answers and defend one of them.
1.      Fair distribution of costs and benefits through the market
One answer to the question is to say that the market already fairly allocates the benefits and burdens associated with living under established flight routes. Rents and property prices reflect the distribution of preferences that people have when it comes to the trade-off between noise pollution and money. This approach would favour policies that maintain the status quo and reject introducing any changes in flight routes given that choices were made and expectations were built around a stability of flight routes. We see two problems with this approach. Firstly, we do not think that the choices made by some individuals to live under the flight routes are genuine choices that reflect their preferences. On the one hand, information about the health costs of airplane nuisance was not available till recently (2013). On the other hand, there is the worry that many individuals have no option but to take up residence under flight routes thereby sacrificing or risking their health not because of a preference for money but because properties in those areas are the only ones they can afford. Secondly, even if we were to be certain that choices of all individuals were genuine or to disregardvoluntariness, a problem remains with regards to the consequences those choices have on third parties, in this case the children of those who opt for health risks in exchange for cheaper rent.
2.      Minimization of total suffering
A second answer says a just distribution is one that minimizes total suffering. The argument that flight routes should be organized such that airplane nuisance affects the least number of people is popular and intuitive. It favours policies that concentrate flights over the least populated areas. This approach relies on utilitarian reasoning, and although electorally attractive, it suffers from the classical objection to utilitarianism: it sacrifices the welfare of part of the population for the aggregate welfare.
One could argue, however, that offering compensation to the victims (those who live under the flight routes) can address this objection. By compensating the victims we show concern for their suffering and balance out the loss in wellbeing incurred by the noise pollution. The compensation can take the form of an offer for relocation or monetary compensation. Yet, we think this response suffers from the same problems as the first answer which relies on compensation through the market. The worry is that some might opt for monetary compensation and hence nuisance and health risks because they are economically disadvantaged and that their choice at any rate unfairly impacts their children. We recognize that forced relocations could be one way to counter this worry. Nevertheless, we think it is problematic as it imposes the burdens of relocation on only part of the population making it open once more to the initial objection of sacrificing the welfare of some for the aggregate welfare.
3.      Equalizing suffering and risk
The answer we favour to the question of just distribution of nuisance and health risks is one that advocates an equal sharing of the burden because it considers it unjust to ask some to endure suffering or risk their health for the aggregate welfare. The policy favoured by this approach would be maximal dispersion of flights. Of course, maximal dispersion is only a proxy for equal distribution of burdens for there will be inevitable inequalities. Equalizing risk is impossible; those living close to the airport will be more affected than those living farther. Maximal dispersion can be complemented by forced relocation (for those areas where the risk is highest) and compensation (although the same concerns about compensation above apply)The principle of equalizing suffering and risk might strike many as counterintuitive. Don’t we by maximal dispoersion simply subject a higher number of people to nuisance and risk than would have been the case under concentration policies? We stand by this principle, however, because we think it is the only one that treats everyone as equal and expresses equal concern/respect to each. Unlike the utilitarian argument, it can be justifiable to each individual. And, we think that justifiability to all trumps efficiency considerations. 

That said, we note that a utilitarian appraoch might also support a policy of dispersion if we take into consideration the following two reasons. First, the negative impact of noise pollution is non-linear (the nuisance of two planes is higher than twice the nuisance of one). This means that concentration does not necessarily minimize aggregate suffering. Second, a policy of maximal dispersion might be highly effective in making a substantial number of citizens aware of the nuisance and dangers of airplane noise which could ultimately lead to more effective lobbying to reduce air traddic and find radical alternative solutions.
Siba Harb and Pierre Etienne Vandamme

I am a PHD fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven. I am working on questions of distributive justice and in particular on principles of justice that are relevant to the European Union.


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  1. Anca Gheaus

    Very interesting issue. In general I favour sacrifices in utility for the sake of fairness. I guess what makes your proposal potentially contentious is that the loss of utility in this case is of such a serious nature – significantly reduced life expectancy. So probably to adjudicate one would want to see numbers – how many people will die earlier (and how much earlier) in which case.

    I also wonder if you're not overly optimistic in the last para, when you write: 'a policy of maximal dispersion might be highly effective in making a substantial number of citizens aware of the nuisance and dangers of airplane noise which could ultimately lead to more effective lobbying to reduce air traffic and find radical alternative solutions.'Isn't it more likely that maximal dispersion of flight routes will mean there will be more flight routes up there, allowing interested economic actors to introduce even *more* overall flights to optimise their profits? Can a conscious and more or less mobilised population effectively prevent horse trading between governments and powerful corporations – especially when at stake there are non-imminent (although very important) threats?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Anca. It seems that the reduced life expectancy applies mostly when there is concentration of flights, or night flights which we left out of the discussion here (there is a strong popular demand for forbidding them). The attractiveness of maximal dispersion comes from the fact that hearing occasionally a plane is not really damaging for health. It is the continuous repetition of the noise which causes most troubles.

    Hence the importance of your second remark. It would be terrible if maximal dispersion incentivised the increase of flights, and we cannot ignore this possibility. Yet considering the strength of the current protests against the proposed policy in Belgium, it is very likely that parties would take popular demand seriously. They are already all very embarrassed with the issue. The problem is that only a minority is currently affected by the nuisance and it is really hard to realize how serious the nuisance is when you are not affected. Myself I had no clue before hearing activists. This is why we think dispersion might have this positive side effect.

  3. Thanks for this interesting post! I am sympathetic to your answer, but here is a concern, which is, in a sense, a methodological one: can we discuss the distribution of this issue independent of the distribution of other issues? I am not so much thinking about a genuine all-things-considered-distribution of all benefits and burdens in a society, but about relevantly similarly burdens. Imagine that a city has both an airport and a harbour. People who live near the harbour have to endure the noise and the air pollution of extremely heavy and loud trucks going in and out of the harbour. So one might want to include this exposure into the calculation of the air traffic exposure: they should probably be less exposed to air traffic. I don’t know whether there are studies about the impact of other forms of noise, and whether the effects are comparable to those of airtraffic. But if they are, shouldn’t one take them into account as well in order to have an egalitarian solution?

  4. I am interested to extend Lisa’s question here to a couple of other specific distributional questions. One is the all-things-considered distribution of benefits and burdens. Here, you mention offsetting the bads of air traffic – the nuisance and health risks – with goods such as monetary and relocation compensation. But, at least as I read your arguments, on these issues your positions seems to be that the market and minimising suffering approaches do not do an adequate job of compensating the former with the latter. If so, would an available response be to have a policy (such as an improved relocation offer) that does do an adequate job of achieving equality across these dimensions (rather than across only nuisance and health risks from one/some activities), or do you have a deeper objection to this kind of trade-off?

    The other I would be interested to question is the benefits of air traffic. I take it that there are a range of benefits, including the benefits of air travel itself and, for example, economic and cultural benefits that arise from the movement of goods, services, and people. I also imagine that these benefits do not accrue equally – some benefit more than others from a busy airport in their vicinity. I would be interested to hear whether/how this feature enters the equation. Perhaps there might be a similarity to the case of negative externalities here. If I have a factory from which I benefit, it would appear that I should shoulder the burden of the pollution it creates, either directly or via compensation mechanisms. I wonder whether, similarly, those who benefit more from the air traffic should shoulder more of the burdens? And, linking to my previous question, if the bads of air traffic cannot be offset by, say, monetary compensation, might it follow that these bads should be directed to a greater extent towards those who benefit more, perhaps, working by proxy, by directing more flights over the residences of the wealthy?

  5. Anca, thanks for the comment. I think I might be willing to go farther than Pierre Etienne and argue that in principle we should go for equal risk even if the risk is reduced life expectancy. I guess, I do not see why increased life expectancy in itself is something we should value, especially when it is not distributed fairly. But, as it happens, and as Pierre Etienne mentioned, it is concentration which causes the highest harm. Which is why dispersion can be adopted for utility based reasons (although of course as you said we'd need to look at the numbers; if we are to make a utilitarian argument that is).

  6. Thank you Andrew. Regarding your first question, my view is not only that the available compensations are not adequate, but also that there might be an injustice in subjecting only a part of the population to such trade-off. If the compensation is so attractive that everyone would prefer it to the absence of sound nuisance, it seems to me that you unjustly privilege the overflown population. And if the compensation is considered attractive by some but not by others, there might remain an element of sacrifice in forcing only some people into this trade-off for arbitrary reasons. I must nevertheless confess that I am not fully confident here and would be interested in reading other opinions.

    Regarding the benefits, it was our (non expressed here) view that those benefiting the most from air traffic should shoulder the burden it creates. As compensation will be necessary for those living close to the airport, it should ideally be financed through taxes on plane users (travelers and/or companies). At the level of principle, I would have no objection against directing more flights over beneficiaries of air traffic. At the level of regulation, though, unjust side-effects – such as punishing "innocents" – make the policy somewhat crazy.

  7. Lisa, thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that we should take other sources of noise pollution into account. I don't know if there are studies about the compraritve impact of different types of noise pollution. But, the studies on the effect of airplane noise measured the impact in terms of decibels so I guess it is not very complicated to carry out such studies.
    But to your point, in the debate of airplane traffic in Brussels, some have made the argument that planes should fly over rural areas because residents of Brussels are already exposed to high noise polution from car traffic. But I'm not sure to what extent this argument works especially that most rural residents work in urban centers and are hence subject to urban noise polution during day time. And, of course things become more complicated if we think we should incoproate not only noise pollution but other sources of pollution that have negative health effects (for instance, there are studies that show that commuting to work also has serious impacts on health, which means that rural dwellers who work in cities are at a disadvantage compared to urban dwellers who live closer to the workplace). I do think that, and to the extent possible, we should be concerned with distribution of health risks arising not only from traffic but also from other choices a country makes regarding the location of industrial zones, power plants, (air pollution and commuting brudens), but also forests, etc…

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