The protesters whose incursion on the runway at London City airport led to dozens of flights being diverted or cancelled will have cost the airlines hundreds of thousands of pounds. They will also have distracted police and airport security officials from other tasks.
And the apparent ease with which the demonstrators arrived by boat to occupy the runway – together with a large tripod, to make eviction more difficult – may inspire terrorist groups to launch copycat actions with more sinister intent.
Terrorists have long favoured aviation as a target. There is no sign that appetite is diminishing. But the tougher the routine checks on passengers, the more that those intent on mass murder will seek alternatives that ignore the “front door” and exploit weaknesses elsewhere.
The incident highlights the vulnerability of an important international airport to breaches in perimeter security. The characteristics that make London City so appealing to travellers – its proximity to offices and homes – also make it more of a challenge to defend.
The capital’s other airports are surrounded by land, which should make their perimeters relatively easy to safeguard, with high fences and barbed wire. But they are not impenetrable, as a protest at Heathrow last summer showed.
In July 2015, Plane Stupid demonstrators cut through the perimeter fence and brought through a tripod to block one of the runways.
At London City, most of the runway is surrounded by water. Sensitive surveillance equipment can detect unauthorised incursions into the protected area, though the early-morning invasion raises questions about the speed of response.
Aviation security professionals fear that shoulder-launched missiles could target passenger aircraft on take-off or landing. Detection of such threats requires surveillance well beyond the airport perimeter, and in a built-up area such as around London City the local community provide essential eyes and ears.
Frustrated passengers who found their dawn flights to London City diverted to Southend or Gatwick, or cancelled at short notice, may yet have reason to thank the protestors who shut down the Docklands airport at the start of the morning rush, if it heightens security.
The apparent ease with which the demonstrators could get “airside” is likely to trigger more sophisticated measures to protect against attacks, and a greater focus on the threat posed by attackers armed with something more lethal than a tripod.
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