At present, major airports are limited to a set number of night flights by passenger. Heathrow, for example, is allowed 5,750 at night - defined, broadly, as 11.30pm to 6am - which works out at about 16.
Under the new system, due to begin on 24 October, if transport ministers, as expected, give it the go-ahead, there will be a quota based on the assumed noisiness of particular aircraft types. However, some aircraft - which operate about one-third of movements at Heathrow - such as the Airbus 320, many models of Boeing 757 and the BAe146 would be zero rated both for take-off and landing. Others, such as the Boeing 767 and the Airbus 310, would not count against the quota when landing. The quota will initially be set on the assumption that the present level of flights of the noisier aircraft will be maintained.
Supporters of increasing the number of night flights said it was essential for the airline industry. Bob Parker-Eaton, deputy manager of Britannia Airways, said that the current system was wasteful and caused additional noise early in the mornings as aircraft stacked up waiting for the deadline. He cites Luton where there are no night restrictions: 'Many local residents there believe there is a total ban on flights.'
The British Airports Authority, which owns and operates Heathrow, also supports the proposals. Richard Everitt, director of strategy, said: 'This will help us accommodate the demand from the Far East.' He did not envisage more than an extra dozen flights per night and added that the new system would encourage quieter versions of the Boeing 747 to be used. British Airways said the new scheme was still too restrictive.
However, protesters said they would suffer huge increases of noise and that suggestions in the consultation paper were based on a 'fanciful' sleep survey carried out for the Department of Transport. The survey says that 'once asleep, 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'. Much to the incredulity of the protesters, it also suggests that aircraft noise at low levels actually helps people to sleep. Dr Hugh Jones, a member of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, said: 'This defies all common sense. We get hundreds of letters from people disturbed at night. The change would be a minor advantage to the airlines, but a major disadvantage for the people of west London.'
Heathrow is west of London and its two main runways are orientated to take advantage of prevailing winds. Therefore, on most days, planes have to fly over London.
Virginia Godfrey, another member of the Heathrow protest group, said: 'We get the impression there's a lot of support from MPs. Many of them live under the flight path and they know how it disrupts their lives.'