Court Clears UK Night Flights to Continue

LONDON, United Kingdom, July 8, 2003 (ENS) - The future of night flights to and from British airports seems assured after the government won an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights. Today's judgement reverses a previous ruling that the UK had breached the human rights of people living near London's Heathrow airport to "peaceful enjoyment" of their homes.

The case was sparked by a claim from eight local residents that increased noise suffered following introduction of a new UK night flight control system in 1993 had breached their rights to respect for private and family life and home.

In its 2001 judgement the Strasbourg court found in their favor. But today's ruling by a 17 judge panel says that the system of noise quotas is not proven to have increased night noise or affected house prices.

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A plane takes off from Heathrow Airport at dusk. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Making the "reasonable" assumption that the night flights contributed to "the general economy," the judges conclude that the UK authorities struck a "fair balance" between the rights of residents and the interests of the community.

The judges back a second claim by the residents, that they did not have a remedy at national level to enforce their human rights.

Following entry into force of UK human rights legislation in 1998, this obstacle no longer exists.

The Court held, by 15 votes to two, that the finding of a violation constituted in itself "sufficient just satisfaction" for any damage sustained by the applicants. Unanimously, it awarded the applicants 50,000 euros for costs and expenses.

Aviation and environment nongovernmental organization Hacan gave an upbeat response to the ruling. "This is an open invitation from the European court for us to go back to the English court with a case," a spokesperson told reporters.

The Association of European airlines welcomed what they called "a pragmatic judgement that recognizes the economic and social aspects as well as the purely personal ones."

European airports assocation ACI-Europe also welcomed the ruling, saying it had "brought much needed clarity on this difficult and divisive issue."

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. 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 planes or fewer noisier planes, provided the noise quota was not exceeded. The new scheme imposed these controls strictly between 11.30 pm and 6 am with more lenient "shoulder periods" allowed between 11 and 11:30 pm and between 6 and 7 am.

Following an application for judicial review brought by a number of local governments affected, the scheme was found to be contrary to a law which required that a precise number of aircraft be specified, as opposed to a noise quota. The government therefore included a limit on the number of aircraft movements allowed at night.

A second judicial review found that the government’s consultation exercise concerning the scheme had been conducted unlawfully and in March and June 1995 the government issued further consultation papers. On August 16, 1995 the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the details of the new scheme would be as previously announced, based on noise quotas. The decision was challenged unsuccessfully by the local governments.

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A peaceful corner of the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames (Photo courtesy London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames)
Most of the plaintiffs live in the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames. The Richmond Council today voiced defiance in the wake of the decision of the European Court that residents’ human rights are not infringed by night flights at Heathrow.

The Council has long campaigned to outlaw night flights at the airport between 11pm and 7am, arguing that this causes enormous disturbance to residents.

Council Leader Tony Arbour commented after the verdict, “It was disgraceful that the government appealed against original decision, and today’s Court decision is hugely disappointing."

“We feel the judges have missed a vital opportunity to strike a blow for the rights of people who suffer every night from aircraft noise. They will feel hugely let down by the court," said Arbour.

He pledged that the campaign of the Council and the residents will continue. “We will lobby the government at every opportunity and continue to press hard for a total ban on night flights."

“They may be sure that we will also resist any proposals for a third runway at Heathrow,” Arbour said.

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