Extinction Rebellion Heathrow protest: Could flights be cancelled by drones?

Climate-change protesters plan to disrupt Europe’s busiest airport from 18 June

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 03 June 2019 13:24
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Extinction rebellion: Teenage rebels at Heathrow Airport

Extinction Rebellion, the climate-change protest group, says it intends to shut down operations at Europe’s busiest airport, Heathrow, for 11 days this summer. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Extinction Rebellion planning?

The group has asked supporters to congregate on the fringes of Heathrow on 18 June, “to carry out nonviolent direct action to ensure Heathrow Authorities close the airport for the day”.

Extinction Rebellion protesters intend to fly drones to force operations to be suspended at Europe’s busiest airport, as what it calls “a ‘pause’ in recognition of the genocidal impact of high carbon activities, such as flying, upon the natural world”.

The move follows widespread shutdowns of key London traffic locations by the group in April.

The climate-change protesters have also told the government that if expansion plans for Heathrow are not cancelled, “Extinction Rebellion will act to shut the airport down for up to 10 days from 1 July”.

It says: “The addition of the planned third runway would make Heathrow the single biggest carbon emitter in the UK; to expand the airport at this critical point in history would be madness.”

Extinction Rebellion’s plan is to launch drones during the night, when flights are not usually operating, and prevent the airport opening in the morning.

Where did they get the idea?

From whoever decided to close down flights at Gatwick shortly before Christmas. Unauthorised drone activity closed Britain’s second-busiest airport for 33 hours, leading to the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights and disrupting travel for 150,000 people.

The financial cost ran into tens of millions of pounds. The authorities have not yet identified the perpetrator(s).

Why are flights immediately grounded if there is a drone in the vicinity?

Although drones are tiny compared with passenger aircraft, they can jeopardise safety.

For example, a drone ingested into an engine could shut it down. Were key surfaces to be hit by a drone, the airworthiness could be affected.

A drone striking the windscreen of the flight deck might also have serious consequences.

Therefore if an unauthorised drone if flying in a potentially dangerous area, operations are suspended. This has happened more than once at Gatwick and also at Heathrow.

What does the law say?

It is a criminal offence to fly a drone near an airport. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says: “You must not fly within the Flight Restriction Zone of a protected aerodrome.”

Heathrow and all other passenger airports count as “protected aerodromes”. The exact specification of the exclusion zone is complex but, in the case of Heathrow, drones should not be flown within 5km of the airport.

The aviation minister, Baroness Vere, said: “Flying drones near an airport is a serious criminal offence and using drones to deliberately put people’s safety at risk carries a maximum life sentence.”

With weeks of warning, presumably the police will be out in force? Yes. When Extinction Rebellion tried to disrupt roads in the Heathrow area, Metropolitan Police were augmented by officers from as far away as South Wales and the protesters left after a couple of hours.

Police chief says Extinction Rebellion protesters will be arrested 'very, very fast' and suggests officers were not assertive enough last time

In addition, the Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said that the protests will be tackled sooner, saying police will be “very, very fast and assertive about getting people arrested and getting obstructions where we can lawfully out of the way quickly”.

But the climate-change group believes that if enough supporters turn up with drones – which cost less than £40 from Argos – the police could be overwhelmed.

What does the airport say?

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “This is reckless action that if carried out could endanger the lives of the travelling public and our colleagues.

“We agree with the need to act on climate change, but that requires us to work together constructively – not commit serious criminal offences just as hardworking people prepare to spend a well-earned holiday with their family and friends.”

Extinction Rebellion stresses that it “is fully committed to nonviolence and will not take action that would put airline passengers at risk”.

But if, for example, a drone was flying at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning and an overflying aircraft needed to divert, there could be some risk.

Should people booked to fly on 18 June or 1-10 July make alternative arrangements?

Extinction Rebellion says so: “Holidaymakers are being given advance notice to change travel plans.”

But with 2.5 million people likely to be booked to fly in or out of Heathrow during the 11 days of protests, there is simply not enough additional capacity in the system.

In addition, no airline will offer full refunds for flights on the affected dates – because they currently expect operations to go ahead as normal.

It is also possible that the highly publicised plan for closure on those dates is actually a decoy for other action at other times at Heathrow or elsewhere.

What happens if flights are disrupted?

European air passengers’ rights rules mean that airlines are responsible to provide alternative flights, possibly on another carrier from a different airport, and to provide meals and accommodation until the passenger reaches their destination.

Disruption at Gatwick before Christmas cost easyJet alone £10m, and a significant shutdown at Heathrow could dwarf that figure.

“Consequential losses,” for example if a cruise is missed because of a cancelled departure from Heathrow, may be covered by travel insurance.

But my prediction is that anything other than temporary disruption is unlikely.

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