The battle to end night flying at London Heathrow is far from over, despite the European Court of Human Rights overturning a lower court decision that could have led to a ban.
The court's Grand Chamber ruled by a majority of 12 to nine that Heathrow night flights, governed by the QC aircraft noise quota system since 1993, did not infringe the human rights of eight people living below the flightpath. This appeal overturned a preliminary judgement in favour of the eight plaintiffs, and effectively decided that the "economic well-being of the country" took precedence over the noise disturbance.
However, the court also ruled there had been a violation of the plaintiffs' right of redress through the national courts. Environmental lawyer Richard Buxton, representing the plaintiffs, says that, effectively, the court has thrown the ball back into the UK's court. He points out that the European Court of Human Rights is not a European Union institution (unlike the European Court of Justice). He describes it as a "very generalised supervisory body", and says the ruling does not necessarily mean that other European airports where night time flying is an issue, notably Frankfurt, will see the case for night flights boosted.
The QC noise quota system, under which aircraft movements are assigned a noise rating that counts towards a maximum permissible number of QC points, is set to be challenged as the case returns to UK courts. Buxton says that although the QC system has its uses, "it is fundamentally flawed".
Buxton argues that relatively small samples for measuring noise impact distorts the quota system. "It is an inappropriate way to deal with situations where there are less than 30 flights," he says. Heathrow has an average of 16 night flights, he says, and under the QC system, one Concorde flight could be of equal value to up to 32 Boeing 767 flights, even though the latter would have a far greater impact on people beneath the flightpath.
Those behind the case have picked up on a report into night flights published in April by the UK's Department of Transport, which notes: "For the majority of aircraft types monitored, the operational noise levels correlated well with the QC bands. However, large differences between the operational noise levels and the QC bands were observed for a few aircraft types." Figures from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority show that a number of aircraft, including Boeing 747-400s, 737-300s and 767s, may have QC ratings that are too low.
The QC system is a vital reference point for airlines and aircraft manufacturers, mainly due to the importance of the Far East-London market. The GE/Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance and Rolls-Royce were forced to redesign engines for the Airbus A380 to ensure the latter met the QC2 band of 93-95.9EPNdB.
The UK government points out that noise limits are based on ICAO noise certification standards. The EC has agreed that any limits on Chapter 3 aircraft should be put in place only after other alternatives have been looked at, including land planning, operational procedures and noise abatement measures.
This is due to pass into UK law by September and has contributed to a set of circumstances causing London to postpone a review of night time flights until 2005. Other factors in the decision are the European Court of Human Rights case, the fact that the UK government is reviewing airport policy for the next 30 years, and a Brussels directive that requires member states to harmonise how they measure noise from transport sources.