25th March 2024


Manchester Airports Group (MAG) is pressing the Government to remove the limit on the number of night flights permitted at Stansted, which is currently limited to 13,700 night flights a year.

This is directly contrary to a Section 106 planning agreement with Uttlesford District Council (UDC), whereby Stansted Airport is subject to the following obligation:

“From the date of this agreement not to seek any relaxation of the night flight restrictions currently in force for the night period of 23.00 – 06.59 or for the night quota period of 23.30 – 05.59”.

SAW Chairman Brian Ross commented: “MAG is putting profit before principle and knowingly breaking this agreement.  The evidence is quite clear. What part of the English language does MAG not understand?”

Night flights are very profitable for Stansted Airport because a 50% surcharge applies to all landing and departure fees between 2300hrs and 0600hrs.[1]

The Evidence

Information obtained by Stansted Airport Watch (SAW) in response to Freedom of Information requests submitted to the Department for Transport (DfT), combined with a review of submissions MAG has made to the DfT, clearly shows that MAG is seeking the removal of the current restriction on the number of night flights.

MAG does not contest the fact that Stansted Airport is bound by a 2003 planning agreement with Uttlesford District Council (UDC), which includes the following obligation:

For more than 40 years, there has been a statutory restriction on the number of night flights permitted at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted (the three designated airports). Stansted has an annual limit of 13,700 flights in the 6½ hours between 23.30 hours and 05.59 hours.[2]

As well as a limit on the number of night flights, there is also a Quota Count (QC) limit. This limits the overall noisiness of night flights and it applies to the 8 hours from 23.00 to 06.59.

Thus, the DfT uses two different controls – a numerical limit and a QC (‘noisiness’) limit – to give local residents a degree of protection from the adverse impact of night flights.

However, MAG is pressing the DfT to totally remove or at least relax the current restrictions:

  • In a September 2021 response to a DfT question: “Should we remove the movement limit and manage night flights through a QC limit only?” MAG’s one word answer was “YES”.
  • Letters dated 9 May 2023 and 19 November 2023 from MAG’s Chief of Staff, Tim Hawkins, to the DfT Director of Aviation, David Silk[3], together with the minutes of meetings between MAG and the DfT on 9 February, 2 May, 17 July and 17 October last year, show that MAG wants to go further than that. MAG wants the Government to de-designate Stansted, so that there would be neither a numerical limit on night flights nor a QC limit on their noisiness.

It would require Government legislation to de-designate Stansted, and if MAG cannot persuade the Government to do this, it at least wants the annual limit of 13,700 night flights to be removed.

Neither of these options would be remotely acceptable to local residents. If the numerical limit were to be removed and only the QC limit remained, this would result in an ever-increasing number of night flights, because of the way in which the QC system works.

It works by allocating QC points to each aircraft type, ranging from 2 points for very noisy aircraft, such as the Fedex MD11, to 0.25 points or even 0.125 points for the aircraft used by Ryanair and easyJet.  Thus, a weekly limit of (say) 150 QC points would allow 75 night flights by the very noisiest aircraft or up to 1,200 night flights by the least noisy aircraft.

It’s simple arithmetic. As the very noisiest aircraft are gradually phased out, each one could be progressively replaced by more than ten times as many night flights. That explains why MAG wants (at the very least) the numerical limit removed and why local residents, as well as local councils, should oppose this.

A further issue regarding the QC system is that it only takes account of the aircraft noise from the moment the aircraft takes to the air until the moment it touches down.  However two of the noisiest impacts of night flights are the revving of engines on full power as the aircraft prepares for take-off and then accelerates along the runway and, on arrival, the reverse thrust applied to the engines when the aircraft touches down.  These ground noise events at night have a particularly adverse impact upon those who live closest to the airport, and yet are disregarded by the QC system.

MAG’s ‘Defence’

MAG questions the DfT’s view that a noise problem even exists at Stansted as well as questioning the need for the Government to continue to designate Stansted and apply night flight restrictions. MAG instead argues that a local planning condition limiting the area enclosed within the 48dB night noise contour should be sufficient.

There are a number of problems with this, the first of which is a question of trust.  If MAG will not honour its existing agreement with UDC regarding night flights, how can MAG be trusted to honour any new agreement.  Whilst many will feel that the DfT restrictions on night flights are too lax, the DfT restrictions are at least binding in law and the Government can be trusted to honour them.

The second problem is that the size of the 48dBA night noise (74 km2) contour is enormous and could easily allow more than twice as many night flights.  In imposing this planning condition in 2021, linked to the approval for 43mppa, the Inspector made clear that it should apply in conjunction with the existing DfT controls and not instead of them.[4]

Concluding Points

All of this lobbying activity by MAG, aimed at securing a relaxation of the controls on night flights at Stansted, has been taking place in the run-up to a major DfT consultation which seeks views on the future arrangements for night flights to apply after the current restrictions expire in October 2025.  DfT formally launched its long-awaited consultation on 22 February and it will run until 22 May.  The consultation document can be viewed online at Night flight restrictions: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports from October 2025 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).

SAW Noise Adviser Martin Peachey concluded:

“This is very disappointing behaviour by MAG. Aircraft are intrinsically noisy machines and particularly so compared with the low ambient noise levels at night in the countryside surrounding the airport. Night flights are the biggest single cause of noise complaints by local residents and MAG has shown that it is prepared to breach its agreements with our local council in order to increase the number of night flights at Stansted. This would adversely impact the health of local residents especially vulnerable groups.”

SAW will next week issue another press release advising its members and local residents how they might wish to respond to the DfT night flights consultation.  SAW will also be writing to local  parish and town councils with guidance on how to respond to the consultation and will be writing to Uttlesford District Council alerting them to MAG’s breach of the planning agreement, and providing the evidence obtained by SAW from the DfT under the Freedom of Information Act.

[1] https://assets.live.dxp.maginfrastructure.com/f/73114/x/2be10aa74f/stansted-airport-limited-fees-and-charges-fy25.pdf

[2] Section 78 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 empowers the Secretary of State to set night flight restrictions at designated airports. Since 1982, the designated airports have been Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. The current night flight restrictions are set down in a DfT ‘Decision Document’ dated July 2021, available at: Night Flight Restrictions at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted (publishing.service.gov.uk).

[3] Obtained by SAW under the Freedom of Information Act. Copies available from SAW on request.

[4] Appeal Reference No: APP/C1570/W/20/3256619, Inspectors’ Decision Letter, 21 June 2021, para 135.

Campaigning to ensure Stansted Airport's authorised operations stay below harmful limits