Eight people living under the Heathrow flight path pledged yesterday to continue their legal battle against night flights despite losing their case in the European Court of Human Rights.
The court overturned its previous ruling after accepting evidence from the Government that the economic benefits of night flights far outweighed the human rights of those suffering disrupted sleep in their homes beneath the flight path.
The case concerned 16 flights over West London between 11.30pm and 6am daily. Most of the aircraft arrive after 4.30am and the residents said it was impossible to fall back to sleep properly because a jet passed every ten minutes. More than a million people in ten London boroughs live under the flight path of night flights.
The court had ruled in October 2001 that the flights violated residents' rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees "respect for private and family life and home". The court accepted then that the definition included a right to a good night's sleep.
But the Government appealed and persuaded the Grand Chamber of the court that it had made every effort to achieve a fair balance between the needs of residents and the national economic interest.
The Grand Chamber ruled by 12 votes to 5 that there had been no violation of Article 8. The court had been told that the night flights, most of which were operated by British Airways, generated Pounds 240 million in annual profits.
The court accepted evidence that Heathrow's position as the world's leading international airport would be damaged if night flights were banned.
The court heard no evidence that house prices had been affected adversely by night flights. This meant that residents could move elsewhere without financial loss.
However, the court ruled by 16 votes to 1 that the Government had violated Article 13 of the Convention by failing to give the residents a fair hearing in British courts. The residents had challenged the Government's night flights policy in four judicial reviews in the mid-1990s before taking their battle to Europe in 1997.
Richard Buxton, the solicitor representing the residents, said: "The ruling on Article 13 leaves us the opportunity to go back to the British courts. The European Court had no opportunity to scrutinise the claims made about economic losses from stopping night flights. While today's judgment may be two steps back, it is by no means the end of the road."
Jeffray Thomas, one of the eight residents, said he would fight on. Mr Thomas, 74, from Kew, said: "I can only get to sleep after the regular flights stop at 11.30pm and then I am woken at 4.30am by the first arrival. I am going deaf but I can still hear the jets."
The residents lost the Pounds 4,000 they had each been awarded in compensation in the earlier judgment. They were awarded Pounds 35,000 in costs, a tenth of the cost of bringing the case. However, none will be out of pocket because their case was funded by several local authorities, including Wandsworth, Richmond upon Thames and Hounslow.
Wandsworth council said it was considering a separate legal challenge on the ground that the Department for Transport had grossly underestimated the noise generated by night flights. Edward Lister, the council leader, said: "Goliath may have won today, but this is a ruling that leaves the Government's environmental reputation in tatters."
The Government said that residents would have an opportunity to express their views in a review of the policy on night flights next year. But the aviation industry is expected to argue that the number of night flights should increase because modern aircraft engines are much quieter.
The judgment clears the way for the Government to recommend a third runway at Heathrow.