Extinction Rebellion postpones Heathrow flight disruption plans for the summer – but will use drones to close terminals for weeks

Environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion has postponed its plan to halt flights at Heathrow for the summer – but has vowed to use drones to close the airport for a minimum of 16 days.

The climate-change activists had initially planned to fly a swarm of drones in the Heathrow area on Tuesday 18 June and then from 1 to 10 July, unless the government met its demands.

The Gatwick airport executive who handled the pre-Christmas closure caused by an unauthorised drone called on Extinction Rebellion to cancel its protest, and the Metropolitan Police warned that anyone endangering flights would face a life sentence.

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The organisation called accusations that Extinction Rebellion was willing to endanger life “a depressing and predictable smear”.

It now says: “Extinction Rebellion will not be carrying out any actions at Heathrow airport in June or July this year, aimed at causing disruption to holidaymakers and those planning to use the airport in this period.

“The Heathrow airport authorities will therefore not have to pause any summer flights.”

But it has revealed plans to shut the airport for at least 16 days: “This action involves peacefully and openly flying drones at head height within the 5km exclusion zone around Heathrow as the airport authority will then stop all flights until the drone flying is stopped. There is nothing violent about flying drones when there are no flights in the air as it is perfectly safe. We are there first. The responsibility is with the airport authority to not initiate flights.”

The airport is due to release details of its “master plan” for a third runway on 18 June.

The group says: “The Heathrow third runway expansion is a grotesque violation of UK Parliament’s recent declaration of the climate and environmental emergency. Government inaction compels us to act. This Heathrow action proposal opens up unique and major strategic possibilities. The peaceful use of drones leads to the closure of the airport.

“No other tactic can create such decisive economic disruption with the same reliability while being completely safe.

Extinction Rebellion appears confident that it can close the busiest airport in Europe for a minimum of 16 days, disrupting the travel plans of at least 3.5 million passengers. 

It plans to give two months’ notice of the start date of the action to the airport – allowing Heathrow “to safely plan the closure of the airport for the duration of the action”. The group says the advance warning will give passengers “sufficient time to seek alternative travel arrangements.”

A group of 415 protesters will be rostered to fly the drones, with around 30 acting each day.

Extinction Rebellion suggests: “Drones can be painted pink, given names and personalised, etc.”

The protesters say that on the day they will give at least one hour’s advance notice of the start of drone flights.

“Drone use would start early in the morning (3am) before most night flights which run 4.30-6.00am, and scheduled flights, which run from 6am-11.30pm. Whatever their prior announcement approach, they won’t initiate flights knowing drones are already in the air. Drone users would fly drones at regular intervals in order for there to be continual drone flights during the whole day to ensure no aircraft flights could take place.”

The organisers would set up a hotline to enable drone activity to cease in the event of an emergency. 

Extinction Rebellion says the protesters would call the police after their drone use was completed for the day and wait to be arrested.

The group says: “Those coming from white and middle class backgrounds will likely have different/better experiences of the criminal justice system, as compared to people of colour and of lower socio-economic status.”

It adds: “There could also be more disruptive activities to help keep Heathrow closed such as swarming, roadblocks and occupations.”

Laurence Taylor, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said last week: “We are determined to play our part in keeping the airspace over London’s airports safe for the thousands of planes flying in and out every week. I want to be absolutely clear that anyone caught illegally using a drone can expect to be dealt with in line with the law.

“The airport is part of our national infrastructure, and we will not allow the illegal activity of protestors to cause disruption and misery to thousands.”

Boris Johnson, whose Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency is close to Heathrow, pledged in 2015 to prevent the third runway going ahead. He said: “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway.”

He is front runner to become prime minister. But cancelling the project would go against the government’s preferred option for expansion – and a large parliamentary majority in favour of the third runway.

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