Heathrow growth is focus of climate-change protests

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Times Staff Writer

sipson, england -- Heathrow is the granddaddy of European airport nightmares, legendary for its long lines and lost luggage. But the hundreds of protesters who descended on the airport’s administrative headquarters Sunday weren’t furious passengers demanding better service, but climate change activists seeking to block expansion of the beleaguered facility.

In a daylong action that did not live up to fears that it would disrupt operations at Europe’s largest airport, hundreds of activists marched through this small village slated to become the site of Heathrow’s third runway. A smaller group clashed with police and was eventually surrounded when it attempted to encircle the headquarters of Heathrow’s private operator, BAA.

The greatest show of force was a midday parade through this village’s streets -- shadowed by Heathrow’s lumbering jets overhead -- as demonstrators carried placards reading, “No Third Runway,” “Altitude Sickness” and one of the catchier slogans of modern protest, “We Are Armed Only With Peer-Reviewed Science.”


More than 1,800 police officers, some in riot gear, surrounded the perimeter of the airport and scuffled periodically with protesters as they faced off outside BAA headquarters. Six people had been arrested by Sunday night, bringing the total number arrested during the week to about 40. None of the demonstrators entered the airport terminals.

The weeklong protest outside Heathrow highlights the momentum of climate change activism in Britain, where reducing carbon emissions has come to dominate public discourse.

The protests also underscore the government’s growing dilemma over Heathrow, where the global warming agenda and Britain’s continuing economic growth are on a narrowing collision course.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone said this month that the airport, which handles 68 million passengers a year in facilities designed for 45 million, “shames London.” The head of the International Air Transport Assn., Giovanni Bisignani, said the airport desperately needed fixing and fast.

A fifth terminal is scheduled to open next year, and plans are underway to construct a third runway at the north end of the airport by 2020, should environmental standards be met.

But the increasingly vocal climate change movement in Britain has sought to block the airport’s expansion and highlight what it says is the substantial contribution of aviation to harmful carbon emissions.


Over the last week, an estimated 1,200 activists set up makeshift tents, a fleet of bicycles on loan and a sophisticated recycling center in the Camp for Climate Change near the site of the proposed runway. In addition to preparing for Sunday’s showdown, camp leaders conducted workshops on civic activism and environmental science and oversaw a series of earlier protests leading up to Sunday’s clashes.

On Friday, 10 protesters occupied the office of a private charter company that contracts with the government to deport rejected asylum seekers, “exposing the connection between climate change and forced migration,” according to a camp news release.

A day earlier, at two British airports used by private executive jets, activists staged protests “in disgust at the obscenity of the super rich using planes as a taxi service.”

“This week has . . . shown that people have had enough. We’ve had enough of the prioritization of economic growth over the future of our planet. . . . We are the only people who can put the brakes on climate chaos,” camp activist Leila Harris told reporters before Sunday’s march.

BAA, which has operated the airport since it was privatized in 1987, obtained a court injunction barring certain protest groups from entering the airport and urged protesters not to disrupt flights.

“BAA agrees that there is a debate to be had about aviation and climate change, but the 1.5 million passengers who will travel through the airport during the camp have a right to go about their lawful travel plans without being harassed or intimidated,” Mark Bullock, BAA’s managing director, said in a statement.