activism climate change transport

How do you hold a rogue airport to account?

On Friday the 22nd of September, the world saw the largest climate change protest in history. In Luton, our local Extinction Rebellion group took that protest to Luton Airport. Small teams dispersed around the terminal, unfurling banners and giving out flyers.

Then, while the security staff were distracted, three activists glued themselves to the doors of the operator’s office – an action deliberately targeting the operator, rather than passengers. Coming back from their lunch break, the airport staff who are planning and working towards expansion could hardly fail to get the message.

I heard a variety of responses over the course of the day. There was bemusement from some, anger and embarassment from others. Some of the police officers, and our three arrested activists, found the humour in the situation and it was a very good natured protest. There was admiration, and also ridicule.

And indeed, it is ridiculous that anyone should have to glue themselves to a building to start a conversation about climate change. But that appears to be what it takes. There isn’t really any other avenue to object to the inexorable expansion of the airport.

For instance, you might want to use the vote, but all Luton’s major political parties support airport expansion. As I’ve mentioned before, growing the airport was the first thing on the local Labour party’s flyer in local elections, listed as a reason to vote for them.

You could complain to the council, but they own the airport. You could fight it in the planning process, but planning permission goes through the council – who own the airport. The airport has run consultations on their growth plans, but their questions are all about how to grow. (Eg – would you prefer a second terminal to the north or the south of the current one?) There is no option for no further growth. As the head of the council said last year, “we’re not going to not grow the airport.”

You could take it up with the MP, but both of Luton’s MPs support airport expansion. Take it to central government, and despite having a prime minister who once said he would lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop a third runway at Heathrow, you’ll find nothing but support for aviation.

What avenue is there but protest? And by the way – the airport has a whole host of byelaws to prevent protest, including the simple unveiling of a banner. So no, you can’t protest either. Not legally, and that is down to twenty years or more of protests at and around the airport, long before Extinction Rebellion got started.

So what do you do if you take the climate crisis seriously, and recognise that airport expansion is immoral? The only option left is civil disobedience.

The thing is, the airport is free to bend the rules. If it breaches its noise limits, number of night flights, or air pollution controls, it can ask the local authority to extend them. And the council owns the airport. There is no accountability. The airport can do what it wants.

This is not unique to Luton of course. I’ve written before about how Heathrow promised no further growth as a condition for building Terminal 4. Then they wanted a 5th Terminal after all, and promised no third runway as a condition for it. Despite both major political parties being against it at various points, it is expected to get that third runway.

Aviation cannot continue to get a pass while every other sector of the economy cuts emissions. It must be challenged. At the moment that is very difficult. If you live in a city with an airport that is similarly unaccountable, I’d love to hear about it.


  1. Just looked at your local elections this year, and you only had one Green Party candidate in the whole borough. In other parts of the country I know there have been significant wins on environmental policy made just because an elected Green has been in the room when decisions are made.

    Yes, Extinction Rebellion’s methods are great to get a conversation going. But change is easiest to achieve when you have both campaign groups putting pressure on from the outside and elected politicians who are on your side. Whilst it looks like you only get local elections in Luton once every four years, it might be worth getting some members of your XR group to form an active local Green Party and work towards getting some anti-expansion voices on the council the next time there’s an election. Getting people elected from a smaller party can be a lot of work, but it’s often easier than winning over politicians from unsympathetic parties.

    1. That is indeed part of the equation. Luton’s green party is small and they have never quite gained traction locally, for a number of reasons. At the moment we have a Labour council with Lib dem opposition, and my own local councillors are Lib dem. In private conversation they talk a good game on climate change and have put forward climate emergency votes, but they have voted for airport expansion at the same time.

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