The Government's original intention was to set up a quota system, in which points would be allocated according to each aircraft's noise levels. But at the hearing of a case brought by a group of local authorities, Mr Justice Laws ruled that this was unlawful because it did not set any overall limits on the number of flights.
Opponents claimed that the quota system would lead to more night flights and there were fears that the number at Heathrow could quadruple.
Yesterday, Lord Caithness, the aviation minister, announced that there would be a total of 2,550 night movements at Heathrow for the six-month period starting from 24 October, with 2,200 at Gatwick. At Stansted airport, where there had been no limit previously, the number of night flights will be restricted to 5,000.
The winter ceilings for the last five years have been 3,000 at Heathrow and 2,357 at Gatwick. However, the slight decrease in the number of flights is balanced by the fact that the night period is now to be defined as 11.30pm to 6am, compared with 6.30am, which means there are no controls on that half-hour period.
'Local residents will benefit from the protection of the cap on numbers while airlines will still have an incentive to use quieter aircraft under the quota points system', Lord Caithness said.
The quota system has been retained but is, in effect, superseded by these new ceilings. BAA, the owner of the three airports, and Britannia Airways, Britain's largest charter airline, welcomed the announcement.
A spokesman for BAA said: 'We have always argued for a quota system because this will ensure there is an incentive for airlines to use quieter aircraft on routes in and out of London.'
Richard Hedges, of Britannia, said: 'This will ensure that we can carry out our winter schedule without disruption.'
The new totals have also been welcomed by anti-noise groups. John Boulton, of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, said: 'This is terrific although we are worried that they will try to increase the amount again once they have sorted out a new system. We are still pressing for a total ban.'
Toby Jessel, the Tory MP for Twickenham, south-west London, which is under the main Heathrow flight path, welcomed the reduction but said: 'There must now be a further reduction in the summer when more people sleep with their windows open, and the air is lighter.'
Lord Caithness said a new consultation paper setting out proposals for permanent arrangements would be published shortly.Reuse content