London night flights to soar: Airport anti-noise campaigners angered by timing of controversial announcement

THE NUMBER of night flights into Gatwick and Stansted airports will soar over the next few years, the Government has announced.

Residents' groups campaigning against aircraft noise were angered at the Department of Transport's timing. The news emerged last Friday afternoon when the media was focusing on the local elections and the opening of the Channel tunnel. The announcement received almost no press coverage.

At Gatwick, in West Sussex, the maximum allowed number of night take-offs and landings between late March and late October, the busiest months, will rise from 7,000 this summer to 11,200 in 1998 - a 60 per cent increase. At Stansted, in Essex, the number rises from 6,500 to 7,000.

John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, has also confirmed his decision to reduce hours during which night-flying restrictions apply, bringing the cut-off time forward from 6.30am to 6am.

This has infuriated anti- noise campaigners around all three main London airports, including Heathrow, where the maximum number of night flights is being frozen.

Virginia Godfrey, of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, said: 'I'm sure it's not chance that this came out on Friday afternoon. It's the sort of political tactics used to bring through increases while pretending there is nothing happening.'

The night flights between 11.30pm and 6am are a tiny proportion of movements in and out of the three airports but because they occur when people are sleeping - or trying to - they cause much disturbance.

The Government is also going ahead with a complex quota system which restricts night flights according to how noisy they are. A take-off or landing by a modern, quiet jet counts as less than one aircraft movement, while one involving an older, noisier jet counts as several.

Mr MacGregor said the new restrictions would encourage the use of quieter aircraft. They would allow a growth in take-offs and landings but overall night-time noise would be kept well below levels experienced in 1988 at Heathrow and Gatwick.

The campaigners are not convinced. 'There is really no such thing as a quiet aircraft,' Ken Dunn, of the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign, said. 'On hot summer nights when people want a bit of fresh air you open the windows and the din comes in.'

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