Who’s responsible?

Luton Airport is owned by Luton Borough Council through a holding company called LLAL (London Luton Airport Limited). The Council is the 100% shareholder in LLAL, and owns the Airport on behalf of the people of Luton.

In turn, LLAL has set up an airport operating contract, or concession, with a Spanish-owned company called LLAOL (London Luton Airport Operations Ltd – a confusingly similar name) which runs Luton Airport day-to-day.

LLAOL – or LLA as it brands its website – then sets up contracts with airlines such as easyJet, Wizz, RyanAir, and permits them to use departure and arrivals slots to operate flights, and to park aircraft at its stands. All of the operation relating to car-parking, checking in, departures, arrivals, immigration, baggage handling, taxi concessions, de-icing, security checking etc is organised by LLAOL.

In addition, LLAOL – the airport operator – is responsible to Luton Borough Council, its Local Planning Authority, for the operation of the Airport within planning constraints. These Planning Conditions cover noise, maximum numbers of flights and passengers, developments and other matters.

LLAOL is also responsible to the civil aviation regulator, the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), for ensuring safe operation of the Airport and the flights which operate at it, as well as for setting the departure and arrivals routes, ensuring airlines are aware of these and many other flying rules governing the airfield. Should the airport operator wish to alter a flight route or any factor such as the rate of climb of aircraft on the main route, it must follow a strict process laid down by the CAA, called CAP1616.

Once a departing aircraft has taken off, control of the flight is passed from the Luton Control Tower to NATS (National Air Traffic Services, based in Swanwick). Air Traffic Controllers employed by NATS will use radar to follow the progress of the flight, and may – in cases of thunderstorms, or when it has reached a defined altitude – give the pilot a heading different from the prescribed route. This is called vectoring, and is used for safety reasons or to expedite the climb or relieve airspace congestion. When aircraft are arriving close to the airfield, they are also “steered” by vectoring to line up safely with the long arrivals track, properly sequenced with other aircraft.

National policy as far as aviation is concerned is the responsibility of the Department for Transport under its Secretary of State, currently Grant Shapps – a keen private pilot, who early in his period of tenure instructed the CAA to prioritise the needs of private aviation and gave them permission to ignore the environmental consequences.

Each major commercial airport is required to produce a Noise Action Plan. These are reviewed every 5 years by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), which also takes input from the DfT when assessing these.

After substantial pressure from lobby groups such as LADACAN, based on growing concerns over the lack of any effective control of aviation noise, the government finally agreed to set up an independent noise watchdog ICCAN (Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise). It currently has no powers, but is seeking to act to influence towards best practice, liaising with airports and community groups.

In terms of planning regulations, an Airport is either “designated” like the main London Airports Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted – in which case its noise regulations are decided by the DfT, or not designated in which case the Conditions governing noise are set by its Local Planning Authority.

And of course in the case of Luton Airport, its Local Planning Authority is: Luton Borough Council, which takes us right back to the start, since Luton Borough Council also owns the Airport and derives a great deal of financial benefit from it: so much so that as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, LBC has more or less become bankrupt. The financial merry-go-round is another story, well worth reading…