Exclusive: How Extinction Rebellion Plans To Shut Heathrow Airport Down

Document reveals how climate change activists will use drones to organise mass disruption lasting up to 16 days later this year.

Millions of passengers could face travel turmoil at Heathrow this autumn as Extinction Rebellion plans mass disruptions using drones, according to a new detailed proposal seen by HuffPost UK.

The climate activist group will organise “day after day” of chaos across two weeks at the west London airport in a bid to stop flights, the leaked document reveals. 

The group – which shut down large parts of central London in April to raise awareness of climate change – is pushing forward with a revised strategy at Heathrow despite reports of unease among some activists.

“There is the opportunity to transform the humble drone into a David which allows us to stop the Goliath of Heathrow and the global aviation industry from destroying us,” the document states.

In the new plans, drones would be flown no higher than 6 feet, weigh less than 7kg, and be kept away from Heathrow’s designated flight paths, in a bid to ensure “non-violent action”. Activists would also have an open “hotline” to police and would provide two months’ notice. 

Extinction Rebellion confirmed the document was real and told HuffPost it had reflected on feedback from its initial plans to shut down Heathrow, and that its new proposals included measures to minimise disruption for travellers.

Nonetheless, the proposed action would still see hundreds of XR activists work in shifts to fly small “toy” drones at head height across designated areas in Heathrow’s vicinity, within a 5km (3 mile) no-drone zone.

Extinction Rebellion has mapped where it believes it would be best to fly drones near Heathrow. This illustration is based on a map produced by XR.
HuffPost Illustration

Activists who fly the drones would end their shift by calling the police to request detention, the document says.

The drones would take to the air at 3 am, the document adds, around 90 minutes before Heathrow’s regular flight schedule begins at 4.30 am.

The aerial devices themselves “can be painted pink, given names and personalised”, the document says. 

XR plans to provide Heathrow, the police and the public with two months’ notice of the drone action, a revised measure on the previous plans.

Around 219,000 passengers use Heathrow on an average day, meaning the planned 16 days of action could affect more than 3.5 million travellers.

The plans echo disruption at London’s other airport, Gatwick, which was forced to close for 33 hours in December after the appearance of a drone near its runway. The perpetrator has never been traced.

The Heathrow proposal document, issued to groups of activists and those affiliated with XR, says the aim is “to have 415 people who are arrestable on the action (ie the current level of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere 415 parts per million) and continue day after day on an ongoing basis”.  

The document includes legal advice to those arrested which suggests that the “participants” should tell police they intend to “continue their actions” if released.

‘Safety Measures and Protocols’

  1. Head height – all drones must be flown no higher than at head height… a 6 feet maximum height is clearly no risk to aircraft

  2. Small drones – any drone flown must be lightweight

  3. Not within flight paths – if deployed at all as part of any planned action - drones will be flown at just above head height in the restricted 5km zone surrounding Heathrow, but NOT within flight paths as clearly indicated in the map below. As an example, advance notice could be given by Extinction Rebellion that a drone might be flown just above head height in a public park in West Drayton, presenting the airport authorities with the advance decision to safely close air space for the duration of this action

  4. 1 hour’s advance notice - the Heathrow Airport authority would be given at least 1 hour’s advance notice before each drone flight

  5. Early start – drone use would start early in the morning (3 am) before most night flights which run 4.40-6 am, and scheduled flights, which run from 6 am-11.30 pm. The airport authority would therefore not initiate flights when drones are being flown

  6. Ring police once completed – drone users would ring the police after their drone use was completed for the day and wait peacefully to be arrested

  7. Regular intervals – 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

  8. Emergencies – in the case of an emergency all drone use would be stopped immediately. A “hotline” for direct communication between the authorities and the action groups would be organised to ensure this stop function was in place

  9. Two months’ advance notice – the authorities and public would have two months’ advance notice of the start date and time. We hope it also provides members of the general public with sufficient time to make alternative travel arrangements if necessary

A source said the document was released to activists this week, and that provisions to mitigate risks to aircraft safety, above, had been devised since XR’s initial plan to disrupt Heathrow with drones was reported by the Reuters news agency in May.

The group postponed that plan in June after describing accusations it wanted to endanger life as a “predictable smear”.

Those who do not wish to take part in drone flights will be able to “participate in [a] mass picnic, swarming or [a] silent disco planned by local residents”, the document says.

According to the proposals, XR will inform Heathrow and the police of the exact nature of plans in advance and will discuss likely responses to its use of drones.

The incident at Gatwick saw the military drafted in to provide support.

The appearance of a drone at Gatwick Airport in December caused misery for thousands of passengers.
Victoria Jones - PA Images via Getty Images

The XR document states that activists believe it is possible that Heathrow would pre-emptively shut down operations ahead of the action.

Jayne Forbes, a spokesperson for XR, said: “We think we have answered many of the issues people had with our previous plans and these new proposals have now been sent out for feedback.”

Forbes confirmed that XR had worked with an airport expert to understand Heathrow’s systems.

And when asked about the potential date for the drone flights, she said: “We expect to have a decision next week.”

Heathrow Airport said in a statement: “We agree with the need to act on climate change and have invited members of Extinction Rebellion to meet with us. This is a global issue that requires constructive engagement and action. Committing criminal offences and disrupting passengers is counterproductive. 

“The act of flying drones within 5km of an airfield is illegal because it carries risk. We will be working closely with the Met Police and other authorities to manage and mitigate the impacts if this activity goes ahead.”

The Metropolitan Police said: “Anyone caught illegally using a drone within the proximity of an airport can expect to be dealt with in line with the law.

“If flown into the path of an aircraft, a drone has the potential to cause great harm to those on board.

“Affecting the safety of aircraft passengers is very different to blocking roads around London, and should this happen, the consequences will reflect the severity of the offence.

“The illegal use of drones at airports also has the capability to cause great disruption to the public, not only in London, but internationally.

“Airports are part of our national infrastructure, and the MPS will not allow disruption and misery to be inflicted on thousands.

“We always endeavour to engage with protest organisers in order to balance the right to protest, while ensuring Londoners can go about their business without limited disruption.”

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