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Why Heathrow drone activism is a dangerous course of action for aviation

By the time the sun crept over the eastern end of the runways at Heathrow on Friday morning, one thing was clear: whoever closed the runway at Gatwick before Christmas by flying a drone was highly professional as well as malicious.

Nine months on from the 33-hour closure of the Sussex airport, which grounded 1,000 flights and destroyed the travel plans of 150,000 passengers, climate change activists tried to do something similar at Heathrow.

The action was organised by Heathrow Pause “to highlight the incompatibility of Heathrow airport’s expansion with the government’s own legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050”.

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The group gave six weeks’ notice of its intention to halt flights at Britain’s busiest airport, to allow passengers to make “alternative travel arrangements”. Forewarned, the Metropolitan Police took pre-emptive action with a series of arrests the day before the protest.

But Heathrow Pause had other drone deployers, and a pair of them tried to launch an “unmanned aerial vehicle” outside the airfield’s perimeter fence shortly after 3am.

As insurrection goes, it wasn’t quite on a par with storming the barricades. And as disruption goes, it was not in the same class as the Gatwick villain.

“We just have to improvise with plan B,” goes the commentary on the group’s video. “Holding the drone at head height. Not drone flying, but drone holding.”

Heathrow Pause blamed electronic jamming by the Met. The police declined to comment on this assertion, which I interpret (perhaps wrongly) as meaning: “Your drone was a dud, pal. We wouldn’t dream of transmitting jamming signals in close proximity to an active runway, but if you want to think we did, please do.”

Ninety minutes later, Qantas flight 9 swept in from Perth – the perfect exemplar of the problem that Heathrow Pause wants to tackle. The aircraft burns a prodigious amount of fuel on its 9,000-mile, 17-hour journey.

The impact of aviation on the environment, and how to reduce it, is a critical debate. But climate change activists who engage in direct action are choosing a counter-productive and potentially dangerous course.

One long-haul captain told me on Thursday: “I am flying to Heathrow and I will load extra fuel in case I need to hold and then divert because of the drones.” So the mere threat of disruption led directly to a rise in CO2. 

Had the action been successful in halting inbound flights, the increase would have been spectacular because of the requirement to fly to an alternative airport and, when the threat had subsided, take off again for Heathrow.

As well as the self-defeating nature of the protest, there is more alarming prospect. Air traffic controllers in southeast England are highly trained professionals who coordinate the most complex skies in the world. The task is quite challenging enough in normal times; deliberate disruption by deployment of drones adds to their workload and inevitably erodes safety margins.

Disruption can have unintended consequences.

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Let me remind you of the circumstances of the world’s worst air disaster. It happened on the island of Tenerife in 1977. Flights had been diverted there after a small bomb exploded at Las Palmas airport on the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria.

In the disarray that followed, a tragedy of miscommunication led to a collision between two Jumbo jets and the deaths of 583 people. 

Not for a moment do I compare the motives and methods of Heathrow Pause to those of terrorists. I have no doubt that the climate change activists are driven by the purest of motives, to draw attention to the damage caused to the planet by air travel. But they meddle in aviation at their peril – and potentially that of others.

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