Airport loses no sleep over night flights

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Night flights do not affect people's sleep, according to an expert representing the Government and BAA, the owner of Heathrow airport, at the long-running public inquiry into proposals for a fifth terminal.

Dr John Ollerhead, a researcher at the Civil Aviation Authority, the Government's safety regulator, is scheduled to take the stand at the inquiry at the end of this month. He is not expected to deviate from the fruits of his work for the Department of Transport, which in 1992 led him to conclude that "very few people living near airports are at risk of any substantial sleep disturbance due to aircraft noise, even at the highest event noise levels".

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions agrees with Dr Ollerhead's analysis. Elizabeth Duthie, a civil servant from the department, has submitted evidence to the inquiry which states: "The number of disturbances caused by aircraft noise is so small that is has a negligible effect on overall normal disturbance rates".

Residents disagree. Tom Jacobs, a retired physics lecturer, lives under one of the two flight-paths. He has told the inspector in charge of the inquiry, Roy Vandermeer QC, that "noisier planes will wake me, even with the bedroom windows closed". Another resident told the inquiry that her family was woken up every day at 6am. "It is incredibly unpleasant to wake up to the sound of screaming machines in the sky," she said.

Mr Vandermeer is to witness the effects of early morning departures. He is planning to stay in a hotel in Richmond to judge the likelihood of being woken up by the 16 arrivals and departures that occur before 6am.

Campaigners, who oppose Terminal 5, are keen to highlight the noise issue. "We think the Government's research is fundamentally flawed. Our evidence shows that thousands of people are affected by these early morning flights," said Dermot Cox, chairman of the Heathrow anti-noise group, Hacan.

Even if Terminal 5 does not get the green light, campaigners fear that the pressure for more night flights will continue. Mr Cox points out that British Airways, which operates more than a third of all take-offs and landings at Heathrow, has told Mr Vandermeer that the airline "will recommend an easing of the limit on the number of night flights permitted".

BAA claims that despite a 60 per cent increase in passenger numbers, should Terminal 5 go ahead, there would be "no change in noise levels". A spokesman added that the "situation will not worse than it is today. Terminal 5 will not mean more noise for the 500,000 local residents".