LEIPZIG, Germany (Reuters) - A German court due to make a landmark ruling on a night flight ban at Frankfurt airport said residents' need of a few hours of quiet during the night near Germany's busiest hub deserved "special consideration".
A local court imposed a ban on night flights when Frankfurt airport opened a new runway in October, a shock to airlines and airport operator Fraport (FRAG.DE), and referred the matter to the higher court in Leipzig, Germany, for a final decision.
The ban came despite a local government recommendation to limit flights to 17 takeoffs or landings a night for the 2011/12 winter schedule in exchange for allowing the airport to expand.
"The intention alone to offer the airport an ideal environment for development is not enough" to justify night flights, regardless of an airport's size, judge Ruediger Rubel said during a hearing at the court in Leipzig on Wednesday.
A more specific justification would be required to allow flights between midnight and five in the morning, he added.
The court started holding hearings on the night flight ban on Tuesday but no date for a ruling has been announced yet.
Airport operator Fraport wants to increase capacity at Frankfurt, which served 56 million passengers in 2011, to help it secure its role as a hub for lucrative long-haul flights to Asia in the face of rising competition from the Middle East.
It has the backing of the regional state of Hesse and of Germany's airlines including Deutsche Lufthansa (LHAG.DE).
But towns and residents affected by the noise of airplanes flying overhead want the new runway shut down and the night flight ban extended.
The growing opposition to the runway, coupled with the surprise ban on night flights, has left those firms whose existence depends on the airport fearful about the future.
Lufthansa Cargo, the freight unit of the German flagship airline based at Frankfurt, says it is bleeding customers.
Lufthansa, which has been forced to cut costs to combat high oil prices and a downturn in bookings brought on by the European debt crisis, has said Frankfurt needs a big airport with night flights if it is to compete with the fast-growing carriers of the Middle East, especially on routes to Asia.
Fraport and Lufthansa hope to placate residents with a bigger package of noise reduction measures, including higher flight paths, extra soundproofing for windows and offers to buy up homes under the flight path.
Reporting by Peter Maushagen; Writing by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Will Waterman