Stansted night flights

If you feel there are more Stansted night flights than ever, you’d be right.  Stansted Airport Watch (SAW) – successor to the Stop Stansted Expansion organisation – has finally been able to establish what’s been happening. Here is a recent press release on the subject:


Stansted Airport is allowed a maximum of 13,700 flights a year during the 6½-hour core night period from 11.30pm to 6.00am [ see note].  That, incidentally, is more than twice the number allowed at Heathrow, so local residents in this part of the world are entitled to feel they have drawn the short straw.  And that’s not the whole story. 

The annual limit of 13,700 night flights is divided into a summer limit of 8,100 and a winter limit of 5,600. The summer period coincides with British Summer Time, and normally lasts for 31 weeks, from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October.  

The numbers for this summer are not yet available but SAW has been able to establish that Stansted handled 10,509 night flights last summer compared to the statutory limit of 8,100.  However, Stansted management insist that they have not broken the rules.  This is all made possible by a clever three-card trick.  Here’s how it works. 

Step 1 – The night flights legislation (which applies to Heathrow and Gatwick as well as Stansted) allows up to 10% of the previous winter’s allowance (if the allowance has not been fully used) to be carried forward to the following summer.  That added 560 flights to Stansted’s summer 2022 allowance, increasing it to 8,660 night flights.  

Step 2 – The legislation also allows an airport to overshoot it’s allowance by up to 10% and carry this forward by reducing the allowance for the next winter period.  That added another 810 flights to Stansted’s summer 2022 allowance, increasing it to 9,470.

Step 3 – Finally, the Secretary of State allows Stansted management to use their own discretion to disregard certain night flights.  These are known as dispensations and they are mostly granted when an aircraft which was scheduled to arrive or depart before 11.30pm, actually arrives or departs after 11.30pm, thereby becoming a night flight.  In the 2022 summer period, Stansted management granted a total of 1,201 dispensations. 

Hey Presto!  The combined effect of steps 1, 2 and 3 enabled Stansted to handle over 10,500 night flights last summer without breaching the statutory limit of 8,100.  

SAW was only able to obtain this information by submitting a series of requests to the Department for Transport under the Freedom of Information Act, by pressing Stansted Airport management to explain the apparent disparity in the number of night flights, and also by writing directly to the Secretary of State asking for an explanation. 

SAW has also been able to obtain comparative information for Heathrow and Gatwick which shows that they are far less liberal in granting dispensations.  Compared to the 1,201 dispensations granted at Stansted last summer, Gatwick granted 576 dispensations and Heathrow granted just 415.  This is despite the fact that Stansted is by far the smallest of London’s three main airports. 

The vast majority of dispensations granted by Stansted management were Ryanair flights and were categorised as being delays due to bad weather (mainly “thunderstorms”) and Air Traffic Control problems.   

However, this begs the question as to why Stansted flights should be so much more prone to thunderstorms and Air Traffic Control problems compared to Heathrow and Gatwick?    

SAW is still waiting for either the Secretary of State or Stansted management, or both, to answer this question. Meanwhile many local residents may feel that it’s time to stop Stansted management marking their own homework.  Better still, it’s time to dispense with dispensations. 


NOTE: The widely accepted meaning of “night” – as defined by the World Health Organisation and others – is the 8 hours from 11.00pm to 7.00am. However, the UK Dept for Transport only restricts the number of night flights during the 6½ hours from 11.30pm and 6.00am. 

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