Residents affected by aircraft noise from George Best Belfast City Airport have welcomed a report by the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, Marie Anderson, which is heavily critical of the failure by the Department for Infrastructure to properly enforce the airport’s late flights rule – i.e. to permit no flights beyond the 9.30 p.m. deadline except in exceptional circumstances.
In response to the Ombudsman’s enquiries, the Department stated that the 3000 plus flights that took place over a seven-year period were ‘exceptional’. They had however no definition for ‘exceptional’.
The Ombudsman also noted that the Department failed to gather data on a regular and systematic basis on late flight movements from 2008 to 2011 for the purpose of monitoring the Airport’s compliance with the 2008 Planning Agreement;
The Department failed to investigate the residents’ group Belfast City Airport Watch Limited (BCAWL) complaint thoroughly and provide adequate responses to concerns raised.
The report found the Department’s failure amounted to maladministration, and made a number of recommendations:
• The Department should enter into discussions with the airport with a view to establishing an operational definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’
• The Department should establish and implement operating procedures for analysing data, record keeping and reasons for monitoring decisions.
• The Department should also provide training to ensure that staff are aware of the importance of responding to complaints in an effective manner.
In addition, the Department are required to make a compensatory payment of £1000 together with an apology to BCAWL to effect a fair settlement of the matters complained of.
Speaking on behalf of the residents’ group, Professor Mari Fitzduff said residents were delighted with the ruling:
“We have spent years trying to convince the authorities that they needed to take action on this issue,” she said. “Our case was dismissed by the Department but now, finally, we have been vindicated. We hope this will mean that long-suffering residents can finally look forward to peace and quiet in the late evening and night-time.
“What’s important now is that the Department acts on the report’s recommendations as quickly as possible.”
The planning agreement states that late flights should not occur after 9.30pm, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’. But the airport’s own figures show that late flights have occurred, on average, more than once a night, with nearly 500 in 2016 alone.
To support its case, BCAWL carried out an analysis of the reasons provided by the airport for more than 200 late flights. It found that, in most instances, the reasons given were routine ones, such as common technical issues, rather than anything which could be regarded as ‘exceptional’ and out of the ordinary.
One local person who has welcomed the Ombudsman’s ruling is Sydenham resident, Elizabeth Bennett (76). She lives under the flight path and is a full-time carer to her husband.
“Life is stressful enough for me already, and the planes only add to my stress levels,” she said.
“They start up at 6.30 in the morning and go on until late at night. I’ll certainly be very glad if they stop at 9.30pm as they’re supposed to.”
Another Sydenham resident, Marlene Allen, said late night noise can be a particular problem for children:
“I have two young foster daughters and, when they first arrived, they found the noise quite unsettling,” she said.
“I’ve also complained to the airport, only to have the phone put down on me.
“The government needs to act on this and I’m glad the Ombudsman has recognised that.”
The ruling has also been welcomed by Jessica Barreda, who lives in the Ravenhill area of south Belfast, under the flight path. She has two children, Chloe (9) and Adam (6). She also found complaining to the airport did not work:
“As a family, we find the noise really stressful and annoying,” she explained.
“If we’re out in the garden, we can’t really enjoy yourselves properly because there’s planes constantly going overhead and we can’t hear each other talk.
“Late flights are especially frustrating because we’re supposed to get a break from the noise after 9.30pm.
“I complained to the airport numerous times about late flights but they never took any action. I hope things are going to change now that this report’s been published.”
NI Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “This finding is vindication for the residents of Kinnegar who have been plagued with late night nuisance noises associated with the airport over a period of years.
“The Department has been remiss in its duty to protect residents from noise pollution, having apparently failed to collect systemic data on flight activity until it came under pressure from BCAWL.
“In 2016 alone, almost 500 exceptional flights took place after 9.30pm, which averages out at more than one a day. This is a ludicrous state of affairs which has resulted in a lot of annoyance and distress for those living under the flight path.
“I hope that from now on the Department will remember that its duty is to the residents and will focus on minimising the impact of the airport on their lives,” Mr Agnew added.