A German court on Wednesday ruled in favour of a night flight ban at Frankfurt airport, Europe's third busiest, dealing a blow to German flagship airline Lufthansa and airport operator Fraport.
Lufthansa, which says night flights are crucial for its cargo operations and to compete with fast-growing Gulf airports, said the decision would have serious consequences for Germany as a place to do business.
"This is a good day for our rivals in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Dubai," chief executive Christoph Franz told journalists.
He added the decision by a judge at a federal court in Leipzig to ban flights at Frankfurt between 11 pm and 5 am in response to complaints about the noise from residents would affect decisions on where Lufthansa makes future investments.
Lufthansa Cargo said it would make a decision on future investment plans of up to EUR€1 billion (USD$1.3 billion) late in the third quarter.
"We have to wait and see how customers react to the summer flight plan," Cargo chief executive Karl-Ulrich Garnadt said, confirming that the ban would cost it EUR€40 million in lost earnings a year.
Lufthansa's cargo arm, which had a 2011 operating profit of EUR€249 million, had switched flights to Cologne during the winter but Garnadt said this was a "flop", as it was impossible to relocate from its Frankfurt hub, where it also uses the belly space in Lufthansa passenger aircraft.
The judge said the state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located, made mistakes in deciding to allow 17 flights during the night without proper consultation with stakeholders when approving expansion of the airport.
The judge said the state could now make a new decision on night flights, but warned there was little room for manoeuvre. Local transport minister Dieter Posch said Hesse would implement the ban "100 percent".
Along with a total ban from 11 pm to 5 am, the Leipzig court also reduced the number of flights permitted in the period covering the so-called shoulder hours from 10 pm to 6 am to 133 from 150.
Political parties in the neighbouring state of Rhineland-Palatinate praised the efforts of the residents in making their case heard. A rising tide of people power in Germany also forced a rare referendum on plans to build a huge rail station in the southwestern city of Stuttgart.
The judge did however rule that the expansion of the airport was legitimate, disappointing those who had hoped for the new fourth runway that opened in October to be shut down.
One of the plaintiffs, Thomas Rapp, welcomed the fact he could now sleep for six hours at night. "But the planes fly 50 metres above my house every minute at peak times. You can't hear a thing," he said.
Industry groups said the decision puts Frankfurt at a distinct disadvantage to rival airports, such as London's Heathrow where 17 flights are allowed between 11 pm and 6 am, with restrictions on the type of aircraft permitted.
German tourism association DRV and airline Condor, owned by tour operator Thomas Cook, said the decision would also hit tourism hard. Many tour operators use the shoulder hours for flights to fly Germans to sunny destinations.
The Wednesday ruling on night flights confirmed one made by a court of lower instance in October, which came just as Frankfurt's new fourth runway was opened.
Since then, thousands of people have attended regular Monday protests at the airport calling for the ban to be extended by two hours each night and for the new runway to be shut down.
Airport operator Fraport welcomed the fact that the judge had approved the airport expansion and said it would implement the ruling as quickly as possible.