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Following curfew: Here’s how night flying restrictions work


One summer, as I sat on the tarmac at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) and prepared to take off on a JetBlue flight from New England to London, the pilot came over the intercom with news of a brief delay.

We were set to fly with such a strong tailwind that an on-time takeoff would cause us to get into London Gatwick Airport (LGW) too early.

As counter-intuitive as that seems (one might think arriving early is a good thing), an arrival in the still-dark morning hours would have violated an overnight flight curfew.

The pilot explained that we’d have to sit for just a bit; the wait probably delayed the flight takeoff 15 minutes, but we still arrived on the ground at Gatwick 15 minutes early.

TPG managing editor for news Clint Henderson once had a far more inconvenient experience. In 2018, after finally boarding a Boeing 777-300 at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) after multiple delays, he was just getting into his business-class pajamas when what appeared to be a fairly harmless hiccup before a long-haul flight to Hong Kong snowballed fast.

“The passengers were fully loaded,” Clint explained, “but the baggage wasn’t.”

That normally minor delay put the plane at risk of arriving in the middle of flight curfew in Hong Kong. Not wanting to risk a violation, the airline ended up canceling the flight.

But what exactly are these curfews, and how might they affect an international flight you’re on? Here are a few things to know.

The sun rises during an early morning flight to Europe. SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

What are flight curfews?

Night flying restrictions, or curfews, are in place at quite a few airports overseas, particularly in Europe. Some of the rules have been around for a long time, but they have grown more common in recent years.

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As the name suggests, curfews are regulations on flights during the nighttime hours. Specifically, it’s a ban or limit on takeoffs and landings — well, scheduled ones, at least — between set late-night and early morning hours.

Most often, these restrictions take effect an hour or two before midnight and last until somewhere between 4 and 7 a.m. The rules don’t completely eliminate those late-night and early morning takeoffs and landings, but they do keep them at a minimum.

A night takeoff at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). STUART GLEAVE/MOMENT OPEN/GETTY IMAGES

Why do curfews exist?

The noise jet engines make is a common driving force behind night flying restrictions.

“You have people living around the airport who complain about noise,” former airline pilot and current University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor Dan Bubb told TPG. “Airports want to be good neighbors, they don’t want to be noisy neighbors, they don’t want to be bad neighbors.”

But air travel is, of course, a 24-hour operation. It’s “an important part of operations at airports around the world,” according to the website of London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) — one of the world’s largest airports and one with night flying restrictions.

Some people feel these rules are too much of a burden.

“It places a lot of unneeded stress on pilots,” Bubb said, noting that he worries about pilots having to think about, as he put it, “beating the clock.”

The international arrivals area at London Gatwick Airport (LGW). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

There are exceptions for emergencies

Don’t worry: A curfew is unlikely to keep your plane circling for hours on end or leave your pilot unable to land in the case of an emergency.

Generally, airports have exceptions to their curfew rules for emergencies and, sometimes, even for bad weather delays and similar occurrences.

For instance, in the United Kingdom, the government can make exceptions to allow additional night takeoffs or landings if delaying the flight to avoid a curfew would likely cause major congestion at the airport (or hardship for passengers from having their itineraries upended).

Where are curfews in place?

There are numerous overseas airports with some sort of night flying restriction. These rules are generally imposed and enforced by some combination of federal, local and airport authorities.

In addition to the regulations in place at Heathrow and Gatwick, London Stansted Airport (STN) also has a curfew in place at night.

As an example of how one such system works, Heathrow operates under a “night quota period” between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. During this period, there are limits on aircraft takeoffs and landings set by the U.K.’s Department for Transport. The rules generally allow an average of 15 aircraft takeoffs or landings per night.

Airports in Zurich and Budapest, Hungary, also have night flying restrictions, and there are quite a few airports across Germany with curfews, including Frankfurt Airport (FRA).

It’s not just Europe, either. Sydney Airport (SYD) in Australia is among the runways with nighttime restrictions. The rules there apply between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Flying above Frankfurt at night. LISA SCHAETZLE/MOMENT/GETTY IMAGES

Here in the U.S., some airports have sets of rules or guidelines surrounding aircraft noise during the late night and early morning hours, but outright restrictions are not common. This is particularly true since the passage of a 1990 law that largely limited U.S. airports from issuing new noise-based operational restrictions.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), just outside the nation’s capital, has a self-described “unique” noise rule in effect; the rule was grandfathered in after that 1990 law’s passage. The airport’s governing body can issue penalties for overly loud aircraft operating between 10 p.m. and 6:59 a.m.

Taking off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) at night. SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

However, the airport points out that this is definitively not a curfew and that a majority of aircraft operating at Reagan during those hours are compliant.

Another U.S. example is in California, where John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange County places a restriction on most arrivals and departures during overnight hours because of noise concerns.

Periodically, you’ll hear about additional efforts in parts of the country to impose certain flying restrictions or otherwise tame flight noise. This is the case just west of Reagan at Dulles International Airport (IAD). Local leaders will begin talks in January 2024 about petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration to make flight path changes in an effort to quell flight noise west of the airport.

How can a curfew affect your flight?

If all goes smoothly with the timing of your flight, you probably won’t ever notice the effects of an airport’s curfew. After all, the flights are scheduled to comply with the restrictions.

As I learned, you could run into a brief delay when flying overnight to Europe if you’re running ahead of schedule; that’s most likely to happen on a flight departing from the East Coast in the early evening hours.

You could run into much more significant disruptions, though, if your plan gets delayed to the point where it might be taking off or landing after the quiet hours begin. That could happen on a long-haul flight to a destination overseas or a short-hop trip in Europe.

“The airline might opt to cancel the flight and rebook the passengers on the next day’s flight,” Bubb explained.


Bottom line

While planes are in the air all day and night around the globe, curfews are common in some parts of the world — especially in Europe. Curfews place limits on when planes can take off or land.

A curfew won’t keep a plane from landing in the midst of an emergency. However, it does explain the timing of some flights and why a late-night flight delay could lead to a much longer itinerary disruption while abroad.

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