During the summer of 2019, much of the world’s attention focussed on demonstrations in Hong Kong, where a series of mass civil protests took place. A range of governmental and economic institutions were disrupted, including Chek Lap Kok International Airport, which experienced two particularly dramatic incidents. On 5 August, air traffic controllers staged a sympathy ‘sick out’ that caused the cancellation of more than 200 flights; then from 11-14 August, thousands of protesters staged a sit-in at the airport, again disrupting airport operations. These events were perhaps the most dramatic example of a global trend of political and social protest increasingly targeting the international civil aviation industry. The two critical questions facing the industry are, why has large-scale civil protest recently turned to targeting international civil aviation? And what, if anything, can the industry do to address the situation? John Harrison provides some answers.
The just-completed decade of 2010 to 2019 is already being referred to as ‘the decade of protest’. From the disturbances that swept away the entrenched governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the early part of the decade, to protests against US immigration policy in 2017. Legacy cab companies in Paris began protesting the rise of Uber, and similar app-based companies, by blocking access roads to airports in Paris in 2017, a trend subsequently spreading to airports in Nigeria, Chile and across the United States. With mass demonstrations from the ongoing Yellow Vest protest in France that began in 2018, to those in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and London during 2019, no continent has been left untouched. Despite protests stretching across years, continents, cultures, and critical local issues, they all share two critical commonalities: the primary social and political issues underlying social action, and the technology used to organise and conduct protests.
“…from the ongoing Yellow Vest protest in France that began in 2018, to those in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and London during 2019, no continent has been left untouched…”
The first issue is the seemingly increasing concentration of wealth, and frequently political power, in a small group of the political and economic elite. Their wealth and social values stress the free movement of goods, services, money and people, but seem unconcerned about, and even dismissive of, those who question the benefits of that system. While the benefits of international civil aviation and modern communication have touched millions of people, it is the elite who are able to live, work and vacation wherever they want, taking advantage of a world linked through the internet and international civil aviation. The latter two items both became key tools, and battlegrounds, of the decade of protest.
“…200 environmental protesters, led by ZAD (Zone à Defender – or Zone to Defend) squatters, occupied the 1600-hectare rural site…”
The second point of commonality is the use of communication technology to organise protests. Cellular communication helped spread the dramatic pictures of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who, through self-immolation, launched the disturbances across the Middle East and North Africa. The Libyan uprising was able to gain valuable intelligence on the capabilities and limitations of government weapons systems from supporters thousands of miles away due to the internet. Hong Kong protesters used mapping apps on their phones to locate both police and protester aid stations, and explicitly used the siege of Chek Lap Kok as an opportunity to communicate their demands directly with an international audience.
Finally, while not a driver of all of the above protests, one increasingly important issue galvanising protesters is climate change. The tensions between environmental activists and civil aviation industry are not new, dating back to at least the 1960s when environmental protests in Japan tried to prevent building of Narita Airport. More recently, in 2019 we witnessed green ‘sit-ins’ at London City and Heathrow, Amsterdam and Berlin Tegel.
“…the dramatic pictures of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who, through self-immolation, launched the disturbances across the Middle East and North Africa…”
Protests can be successful, as was demonstrated by the eco-aviation clash which, in January 2018, resulted in the French government terminating the construction of the new Nantes airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The proposed new airport dated back to the 1960s but from 2009, and despite a 2016 referendum which showed 55% public support for the project, more than 200 environmental protesters, led by ZAD (Zone à Defender – or Zone to Defend) squatters, occupied the 1600-hectare rural site. Police efforts to clear the site continuously failed, even after airport construction was terminated. The zadistes, as the ZAD protesters became known, used their camp, and its infrastructure, to campaign for other environmentally driven causes.
Why has Civil Aviation Become a Target?
Since its inception, international civil aviation has been a target of various violent political actors. Most of the non-violent actors share the same five motivations of the more studied and better-understood violent actors.
1. International stage
Major international airports usually have more than a dozen carriers serving hundreds of international destinations. Amongst the perhaps hundreds of thousands of people using an airport every day are business travellers and tourists. Disrupting travel affects not only the individual but also the countries and international businesses the travellers represent. Thus, protesters in Hong Kong use their airport’s position in the global transportation system to raise awareness of their cause. On the opposite end of the travel spectrum, 2017 saw international airports across the United States become the frontlines for those protesting the Trump administration’s change in immigration policy. Similarly, climate activists use runway incursions or sit-ins to highlight the impact of the industry on the environment to a wider range of people, industries and countries.
2. Media potential
Over the last few decades, communication strategies have focused on social media, legacy broadcast media, and, to a more limited degree, print. The power of social media rests on the ability of anyone to provide instant images and commentary, and therefore on unimpeded and unfiltered access to the global community. However, in recent years, countries such as China and Iran have invested significant resources to impede and filter the internet, including developing their own internets. This has forced protesters – like those in Hong Kong – to try and reach audiences directly rather than through the media.
3. Economic consequences for a target nation
The economic consequences for the target nation are perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new focus on civil aviation. Protests in Bolivia, Mexico, Chile, Haiti, amongst other places, blocked access to critical airports. The reasons for the protests differed, but all exploited the strategic value of airport blockage. The key point here is that the protesters chose to disrupt parts of the economy that had a limited impact on the local population. It is true that domestic travel in places like Bolivia and Peru are, to a degree, dependent on civil aviation, but the disruption to travel will be felt more by international business travellers – not a particularly popular group in many of these countries – and tourists, representing a small part of the economy in places like Bolivia. Thus, the protests can maximise their media exposure and global messaging without disrupting the lives of many local people.
“…the increasingly strident rhetoric emerging from groups such as Plane Stupid and Extinction Rebellion suggests that they will likely move beyond terminal sit-ins and runway incursions to larger scale, and even violent, actions…”
This is what makes the decision by the Hong Kong protesters such a strategic risk. International business and tourism are a major portion of the city’s economy. Disrupting the global transportation and business in a globalised city has a high potential to backfire on the protesters. The significant economic damage caused by the protests – and not just by the disruption to air transport – did not negatively affect the protesters’ cause.
Revenge is, to date, the least common reason to protest at an airport. One can say in a general way that all protests are a form of revenge, but a direct link has yet to emerge.
5. Relatively simple and effective operation
It seems counterintuitive to say that the large-scale protests at airports seen in Hong Kong and the United States were easy to mobilise and organise. Thousands of people arrived and quickly overwhelmed police and security. Modern communications make mobilising large numbers of people relatively easy. Tens of thousands of people can arrive at a given location at a specific time, and quickly disperse if ordered. In the early 2000s, May Day protesters in London deployed this very tactic in an attempt to thinly spread police presence; however, effective police intelligence blunted the impact. As mentioned above, in Hong Kong, the protesters were able to effectively use social media to organise and manage protests across the city.
The civil aviation industry plays a symbolic role in all of the above. The industry itself is not always the issue but, like much infrastructure, it can represent a pressure-point of a nation. However, the industry faces a new threat from environmental activists, as they see the industry itself as a threat.
The increasingly strident rhetoric emerging from groups such as Plane Stupid and Extinction Rebellion suggests that they will likely move beyond terminal sit-ins and runway incursions to larger scale, and even violent, actions. In late 2019, activists were arrested for gluing themselves to aircraft and plotting to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to disrupt aviation operations.
What Can the Industry Do?
In practical terms, there may not be much the industry can do. The protesters in Latin America and Hong Kong are seeking social and political change that the industry is not capable of addressing. Aviation is merely a stage for the campaigners addressing larger issues which have resulted from the failure of globalisation and conventional politics. The industry is trying to address environmental issues such as its carbon footprint, noise pollution, and sustainability. All of these will take time. However, groups like Extinction Rebellion are calling for radical, immediate action and so it is likely that we will see increasing non-violent direct action and even violence in response.
One strategic approach is to actually allow protests to take place. Developing a policy so that protests can safely access the airport and express their dissent without significantly disrupting operations seems advantageous to all parties. This, of course, may not have been appropriate in all the aforementioned cases, but it may be worth the effort.
Operationally, airport police are not capable of dealing with thousands of protesters, nor should they be. Turning airports into heavily-armed camps is ill advised. The negative impact on both the travelling public’s perception of the threat level at an airport, not to mention the cost, is disproportionate to the threat. Mutual aid from other law enforcement agencies could provide additional resources when and if required. The agencies involved need to periodically practice mobilisation and related activities so they are prepared for incidents on airport property.
“…protesters in Latin American and Hong Kong are seeking social and political change that the industry is not capable of addressing…”
Tactically, there are two proven methods. First, airports can follow the tactics such as those developed by the Metropolitan Police during the May Day protests. Protesters were steered into Trafalgar Square and contained there. Next, instead of arresting all the protesters, police only targeted known and suspected leaders. This diminished leadership eventually led to the protest collapsing.
Intelligence is the best tool for addressing any security threat to the aviation system. Some facilities may be able to follow the Los Angeles International Airport police, who have a dedicated intelligence unit focusing on threats to the airport community.
The global protest culture that has emerged in the last decade is unlikely to change. The underlying drivers are currently an endemic part of the global socio-economic system. The relative ease with which protests can organise and mobilise is not going to change. Some countries restrict, or are beginning to restrict, rights to protest, but in the long term this approach does not seem to be particularly effective.
The industry cannot address all the underlying causes of protest, but it is doing what it can in addressing its role in environmental protests. In terms of preventative measures, international civil aviation can reasonably restrict access to its facilities. Runway incursions are dangerous to all concerned so increasing restrictions on those activities, and establishing severe penalties for those who breach those seems appropriate. Otherwise, the industry will just have to manage the disruptions it will face from the protest culture for years to come.
Dr. John Harrison is an associate professor at Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi where he is part of the Homeland Security and Intelligence Program. He also serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Transportation Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org