Stansted brought to standstill by 'Plane Stupid' protesters

Thousands of passengers stranded for hours after environmental campaigners cut through perimeter fence and stage sit-in on runway
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The Independent Online

Sixty militant environmentalists staged a dramatic protest on a taxi runway at Stansted yesterday morning, forcing the cancellation of dozens of flights and prompting a review of airport security.

Plane Stupid, which opposes airport expansion, claimed responsibility for the demonstration, which forced Ryanair to cancel 56 flights and severely delayed other airlines. The protest marked a change in tactics for the direct action environmental group which, until now, has largely avoided disrupting air passengers for fear of a public backlash.

At 3am yesterday, protesters cut through a six-foot security fence on the airport perimeter and began the mass sit-in on a taxiing strip to the main runway. Using an old fire engine, they hauled concrete blocks and metal fences on to the runway which they tied themselves to with chains and locks.

As police and security officials from the airport operator BAA tried to remove the campaigners, the runway at Britain's third busiest airport remained closed until 8.15am, more than three hours after it was meant to open.

Ryanair uses Stansted as its main transport hub and had to cancel the vast majority of early-morning departures. The airline released an angry statement demanding an investigation into why BAA had "once again failed" to keep the airport "secure and open".

Activists from Plane Stupid, speaking to reporters by telephone as police tried to cut them free, said they were protesting against the Government's decision last month to go ahead with the expansion of Stansted despite supposedly being committed to carbon reduction measures. Lily Kember, 21, said: "We're here because our parents' generation has failed us and it is now down to young people to stop climate change by whatever peaceful means we have left."

The third-year Edinburgh University student added: "We're afraid of going to jail but nothing scares us as much as the threat of runaway climate change. We've thought through the consequences of what we're doing but we're determined to stop as many tons of CO2 as we can."

Inside the airport, thousands of distressed and, in some cases, raging passengers desperately tried to rearrange flights or book extra hotel accommodation. Travellers waited in 60-metre queues snaking through departures as airport staff handed out bottles of water and packets of crisps.

Few passengers seemed supportive of the protesters. Phil Rowland, a Newquay surf instructor, missed his flight to Morocco. "If I could talk to the protesters now? Wow, that would be a show," he said, glaring at his surfboard. "As a surf instructor I care deeply about the environment but it's difficult to feel positive about the protest because it has affected me directly. Ultimately if you want to protest, target the airlines and the Government. As soon as you target passengers you will lose the public's sympathy."

Christian Clausen, 23, a medical student from Copenhagen, disagreed. "I care very deeply about the environment and you have to make people realise that the world needs to stop global warming," he said. "If that means you have to target passengers like me to get your point across then so be it."

At one queue for refunds, Ryanair staff said customers could only book a new flight on the internet. They were then shown to an equally long queue for the airport's seven computer terminals.

Maximilian Szesny, an 18-year-old student from Germany, had managed to find himself a flight for the following day and was busily booking other flights for his fellow passengers. "It is chaos," he said. "The Ryanair site keeps crashing and there is no one helping passengers book online. One Russian couple I helped out won't be able to get another flight for a week."

Riah Noll, a 26-year-old nurse from Mainz, Germany, said staff had not been helpful, particularly to foreign passengers who did not speak English. "I can't believe how rude the staff were," she said. "I know it's been a difficult morning but staff in Germany would never have been so impolite. It was as if they didn't care."

BAA called the protesters' stunt "unlawful" and "unacceptable". A spokesman for Essex Police said officers made 57 arrests: 50 on suspicion of aggravated trespass; three for attempting to gain access to a restricted area, and four for conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.