Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Furore over fast track for night flight plans

CHANGES to night flights at Manston airport were rushed through by Thanet council on Thursday in the hope of securing a major freight operator.

Councillors unanimously agreed to pass changes to flight times to allow planes to take off and land for an extra 30 minutes in the evening until 11.30pm and between 6am and 7am.

The agreement, to come into effect in May, is on the condition that Kent International Airport signs a deal with a large cargo operator, rumoured to be British Airways.

Deputy leader Roger Latchford told councillors it was the chance to develop jobs for Thanet.

The agreement could mean an extra 112 jobs available at the airport including, control staff, firefighters, warehouse operatives and aircraft handlers. Infratil also estimate a further 300 indirect jobs would be generated from extra activity at the airport.

A handful of protesters gathered in the public gallery including environmental activist Christine Tongue holding a sign saying: "What’s the rush?"

Kent Council for the Protection Rural England director Hilary Newport said: "There is a real risk that this airport will have an effect on tourism because Ramsgate will become unattractive. We will take advice on if this is something that needs to be challenged."

Councillors were then presented with a new seven-page agreement between Infratil and Thanet council and were given a five-minute adjournment to consider it.

Eastcliff ward Cllr David Green proposed four amendments all of which were opposed. These were the use of runways away from Ramsgate, a reduction of the initial trial period from 18 months to nine months, not leaving the agreement open-ended to prevent another airline walking into the agreement and doubling fines when planes break the night-time curfew.

Central Harbour ward Cllr Peter Campbell demonstrated his discomfort at the speed at which the decision had come before full council.

He said: "I do not like being bounced into this situation. We have not consulted with residents but because of the current economic situation I will support it, but we need to tighten up on monitoring."

Nethercourt ward Cllrs Jill Kirby and Cllr Brenda Rogers hit the streets to find out what their residents thought of the proposed changes. Out of 338 people they asked, 80.5 per cent were in favour of the changes to night flights.

A Thanet council spokesman said: "A total of 11 movements a week of 747-400 aircraft has been proposed, with only a portion of these scheduled during these times. The arrangements will be reviewed every six months and, as part of the decision, an independent environmental consultant will be commissioned to carry out an assessment of the flights taking place during night-time hours. Infratil has also committed to improving noise monitoring and reporting."

Airport boss Matt Clarke said: "I’m very pleased and we’re doing our best to get through the process."

KIA chief executive Matt Clarke said: "We are grateful to the members of the Thanet council for its swift action to assist us with our request to extend the scheduled airport operating hours. Our growth as a regional airport is supported by local, regional and national planning policy and this decision enables our business to compete on a level playing field with other South East airports.

"Discussions continue with the prospective new carrier and we are pleased to have provided them with such a clear signal of community support for the activity, jobs and investment their business would deliver to Thanet."