Heathrow night flights will continue until the airport is expanded, the government confirmed as it published new rules to encourage quieter aircraft across London’s three main airports.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling said efforts to reduce the total noise permitted from flights at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted showed the government was taking the issue seriously.
Grayling said that although he supported a six-and-a-half hour nightly window without flights once Heathrow’s third runway was built, he had to strike a balance between the economic benefits of flying and the impact on local residents.
The measures will ensure that all flights, including smaller and quieter aircraft, are counted within quotas on movements and lower overall noise limits.
The rules reflect a trend towards much quieter, more modern aircraft and are unlikely to affect airlines’ operations significantly.
In a written statement, Grayling said caps had not kept pace with technology, but the new measures would “lock in the benefits”.
“I am fully aware that noise is a major concern for those living near these airports and that night noise is widely regarded as the most disturbing impact of aviation,” he said.
The five-year caps on noise come after a consultation started in January on the night flight regime, with the government rejecting calls from campaigners for a clampdown on night noise.
Grayling said: “The new rules we are publishing will encourage the use of quieter aircraft at all three airports by reducing the amount of noise these airports are legally allowed to make, and will give local residents a five-year guarantee about the level of noise that they will be exposed to.
“This decision strikes a balance between managing the impacts on local communities by locking in the benefits offered by recent technological developments, with the economic benefits of night flights.”
He added: “This decision should be seen as a signal that this government takes this issue very seriously, which is why we expect a ban on scheduled night flights of 6.5 hours at an expanded Heathrow.
“We will also explore whether there is more we can do – including considering further legislation – to incentivise the industry more generally to invest in the quietest aircraft and operate them in the quietest way.
“Strong international links are critical to the future prosperity of our country, with a world-class hub airport and thriving aviation sector central to this.
“We are committed to realising the economic and social benefits aviation has to offer, while taking seriously the need to balance this with managing the local and environmental impacts of aviation.”
The Department for Transport’s decision document said: “The government considers that there are no realistic alternatives to night flights that would allow the UK to continue to reap the existing benefits it derives from having a world-leading aviation sector.
“Having taken into account the responses received to the consultation, the government therefore continues to believe the proposed approach to limiting or reducing the number of people significantly affected by aircraft noise, while maintaining the existing benefits of night flights, remains the correct one for the next night flights regime.”
John Stewart, chairman of campaign group Hacan, told The Guardian that the statement “shows that the government recognises how important night flights are to local communities, but essentially they are proposing business as usual”.
Campaigners for communities around Gatwick said the government’s response was disappointing and warned that the quotas allowed for more night flights in winter than currently operated by the airport.
A Heathrow spokesman said the airport welcomed the government’s efforts, adding: “We know this is an issue that is particularly important to our local communities and we have already been working with our airlines to reduce the number of late-running flights.”
Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said: “Airlines – and manufacturers – have worked hard over previous night flight regimes to invest in the development and operation of aircraft technology to reduce noise.
“Our member airlines have introduced over 470 new, quieter aircraft into service in the last 10 years. This is set to continue with a further 400 new aircraft still on order. This represents a combined investment by UK airlines of around £80 billion.
“We are concerned that the government’s approach to night flights will no longer incentivise such investment in the future and penalise those carriers who have made early investment decisions involving aircraft now being included in restrictions.”
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