Benefits of early morning flight arrivals to the UK

The rationale behind operating these services and what's at stake


Flight arrivals in the early morning are understandably the most likely to create noise impacts for those living in proximity to airports.  For this reason, the operation of flights between 23:30 and 06:00 are heavily restricted through a regulated night quota period. It is a combination of international time zones, and passenger and cargo demand, which dictates the need for certain flights to operate within very limited time periods.  Achieving the right balance between the economic benefits and the environmental impacts to the local communities for these flights remains an important focus for the airline industry.

Economic importance

The UK has benefitted from being at the heart of global trading routes for centuries. As a global economic centre the UK needs to be open for business, and to compete for global trade against rapidly expanding hubs that are more favourably positioned to many of the world’s emerging economies.

There are a number of time sensitive operations - predominantly in the Far East, where there is only a small time window where an aircraft can depart as late as possible before night closures, to arrive in the UK early morning, after the start of the night quota period.

There is an average of just 16 flights arriving at Heathrow before 06:00. These flights connect the UK with high growth markets that deliver significant trade benefits in both goods and services. However, the geographic location of the UK at the western edge of Europe has meant these flights have little scope to be re-timed, and have to be retained for the benefit of the UK economy. For example, flights from key Far East markets depart in the late evening to other major European and Middle East hubs at similar times to UK bound flights. It is therefore vital that the UK can compete effectively with its main competitors in Europe and the global economy in operating flights that are attractive for businesses looking to trade in these high growth markets and the UK.

In a report by Oxford Economics ‘The economic value of night flights at Heathrow (2011),’ research shows that the operation of night quota period flights at Heathrow directly contributed some £158 million in value added (GDP) in 2011. These flights directly supported 3,200 jobs and generated £37 million in tax revenue (from income tax, national insurance contributions and air passenger duty) for the UK Exchequer, and calculated on a conservative basis. It was estimated that the total economic impact of these flights across the UK (i.e. direct, indirect and induced) was some £342 million in value added in 2011, supporting 6,600 jobs and contributing £64 million in UK tax revenue.


The importance of cargo

The majority of the UK’s air cargo is carried in passenger aircraft with Heathrow handling over 65% of the total freight by volume at all UK airports. This air cargo is often high value and ‘just-in-time’ consignments that are servicing sectors such as life sciences and high value manufacturing, and sectors which are key strategic growth areas for the further development of a high-wage, high-skilled UK economy.

In terms of goods, some £116bn or 40%, by value, of the UK’s exports travel by air, generating 38,000 direct, and 43,000 indirect jobs. The additional indirect impact of goods and services purchased from other sectors of the economy through the supply chain to airlines, and the airport and workers employed, helps support other economic activity and jobs.


Passengers value early morning arrivals

Business people are critically time sensitive and utilise overnight flights to allow maximum productivity. For example, Hong Kong is an important market for the UK, with strong historical and cultural ties, and a thriving business community. There exists a clear customer preference for departing to Western Europe before midnight and arriving in the early morning to allow a full working day at both ends.


Flying quieter

The aviation industry has made significant advances in reducing aircraft noise, and continues to invest heavily to achieving further change.

Improved technology means that aircraft designs today are 75% quieter than they were 50 years ago. New aircraft types such as the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 offer significant noise reductions, with the new Boeing 787-9 aircraft having a 60% smaller noise footprint than the aircraft it is designed to replace. These significant improvements are driven by innovations from manufacturers, which in turn have been demanded by airlines to reduce aircraft noise output.

As a result, the population affected by aircraft noise around UK airports has fallen substantially despite a significant growth in air traffic.  Continued investment in research and development, focusing on further design improvements such as blended wing body and engine shielding, offers the potential to build on this success and reduce perceived noise from aircraft by a further 65% by 2050.

There is also further scope to reduce noise output through improvements in the way airports, airlines and air traffic management operate. For example, continuous climbs and descents and steeper approaches all keep aircraft higher and quieter. Curved approaches, runway alternation, and more accurate use of air space can all reduce noise duration and provide respite periods. Achieving these initiatives is an essential requirement in redesigning the UK’s air space that is fundamentally utilising a design that is over 50 years old and created long before the sophisticated navigation systems of today.


Key asks to Government from airlines

  • An urgent commitment from the Government to a full air space redesign fit for the 21st century, that will unlock the full potential of noise benefits, and reduce stacking and delays.
  • A commitment to retain early morning arrivals within the night quota period since these are vital to the UK economy.