UK faces possible retreat on night flights

A landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) says that the Government has infringed the basic human rights of residents living near London’s Heathrow airport by failing to protect them adequately from night-time aircraft noise.

In an unprecedented ruling which could have implications on night flights across the continent, the European Court of Human Rights has issued a judgement in favour of eight present and former residents of the area surrounding Heathrow Airport saying that an increase in night time flights since 1993 represented “a justifiable limitation on the right to respect for the private and family lives or the homes of those who lived in the vicinity of Heathrow airport”. The Court also found that the State failed to strike a fair balance between the United Kingdom’s economic well-being and the applicants’ effective enjoyment of their right to respect for their homes and their private and family lives.

Before October 1993 the noise caused by night flying at Heathrow had been controlled through restrictions on the total number of take-offs and landings, but after that date, noise was regulated through a system of noise quotas, which assigned each aircraft type a ‘Quota Count’ (QC) – the noisier the aircraft, the higher the QC. This allowed aircraft operators to select a greater number of quieter aeroplanes or fewer noisier aeroplanes, provided the noise quota was not exceeded. The new scheme imposed these controls strictly between 2300 and 0600 hours, with more lenient ‘shoulder periods’ allowed from 2300-2330 and 0600-0700. Previously, strict controls had been imposed during a longer period.

The eight applicants complained, among other things, that, following the introduction of the 1993 scheme, night-time noise increased, especially in the early morning, which interfered with their right to respect for their private and family lives and their homes, enshrined in human rights legislation. In its ruling, the Court noted that the Government had acknowledged that, overall, the level of noise during the quota period had increased under the 1993 scheme, but that as Heathrow airport and the aircraft which used it were not owned, controlled or operated by the Government, the United Kingdom could not be said to have “interfered” with the applicants’ private or family life.

In the particularly sensitive field of environmental protection, mere reference to the economic well-being of the country was not sufficient to outweigh the rights of others, the Court decided. In order to do that, a proper and complete investigation to strike the right balance should have preceded the project, it said. As to the impact of the increased night flights on the applicants, the Court noted that only limited research had been carried out into the nature of sleep disturbance and prevention when the 1993 scheme was put in place. Although an overall maximum number of aircraft movements was set, and the Government did not accede to calls for large quotas and an earlier end to night quota restrictions, the Court however did not accept that these “modest steps” at improving the night noise climate constituted “the measures necessary” to protect the applicants wellbeing.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) told edie that there would be no immediate changes to the night flight schedule at Heathrow. “There will be no immediate changes and at present the Government is studying the judgement carefully before considering what further steps it will take and will not comment on the case any further at present,” she said.

A British Airports Authority (BAA) Heathrow spokesperson told edie that the organisation has always recognised the difficult balance for government to strike on night flights between passengers demand to fly, airline’s operational requirements and the impact on local communities. She pointed out that there were about 15 flights per night, some of which are necessary for airlines to correspond with other countries’ night restrictions. She said that Heathrow “is already very heavily restricted”, with other European airports, such as Charles de Gaulle, Schipol and Frankfurt allowing up to eight times as many.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie