Farnborough private jet airport has submitted a planning application to increase annual flights by 40%. This would mean more noise and pollution for local residents, but more broadly, private jets produce up to 40 times more CO2 than commercial flights per passenger mile and will drive global warming even further – for the benefit of a very small number of ultra-wealthy people. This blog from Farnborough Noise Group describes their campaign against the expansion.
Farnborough Airport is the UK’s largest private jet airport, currently operating 33,000 flights a year. While it only has a licence for “business” use, nearly half the flights are for leisure – to the Alps for skiing in winter and second homes and yachts in the Mediterranean in summer. It even operates flights for pets (£8,000 to fly your dog one-way to Dubai). The owner of the airport is Macquarie, the Australian business that owned Thames Water and is now the majority shareholder in Southern Water. The independent body that is supposed to challenge the airport, the Farnborough Aerodrome Consultative Committee (FACC), has a chairman who was appointed by the airport 14 years ago and is paid by the airport.
The planning application submitted on 6 November would increase the maximum annual number of flights to 70,000 with weekend flights doubling and the number of large jets like Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s increasing.
Most environmental activists are well aware that private jets are the most polluting form of travel apart from space travel. Emissions of five to ten times an equivalent commercial flight are often quoted (measured as CO2/passenger mile) but this assumes private jets fly full. They often have just one or two passengers and 40% fly empty as they are positioning flights to pick up passengers. Taking this into account, private jets are 30-40 times more polluting.
Battling noise and emissions
The campaign to challenge the airport was started by XR Farnham’s Mike Grant in 2019. Initially the focus was on emissions and XR protests at the airport. XR tried unsuccessfully to engage with the FACC and has tried every avenue, from raising concerns at public meetings (which resulted in the public being banned from them) to raising complaints to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Department for Transport (DfT).
Things stepped up a gear in 2020 when the airport introduced new controlled airspace and flightpaths over rural areas such as National Parks that are legally protected from aircraft noise. Areas that had a few flights a day over them now had over 100 and the campaign expanded to pick up the issues of pollution and noise as well as emissions. That resulted in nearly 1,000 people engaging in different ways on social media, through monthly newsletters and at regular protests at the airport. Farnborough Noise Group (FNG) then formed to represent diverse groups with a common goal to reduce the harm caused by private jets. Most protests have been by local XR groups but increasingly other groups like Friends of the Earth, The Quakers and Alton Climate Action Network have joined in. There have also been a couple of large demonstrations where national XR has been involved and multiple airport gates have been blocked at the same time.
FNG hoped to influence the eight local MPs in affected constituencies to persuade them to challenge the DfT. Several had objected in 2014 when the change in airspace was discussed. In order to engage the MPs, we needed to get the support of parish, borough and county councils. Monthly newsletters were sent to MPs and 80 or so councils for a year. We held public meetings to explain what was happening, what might happen in the future and how people could respond. It has always been a balancing act to represent the concerns of people with different issues and levels of interest and knowledge. We set up a website as we were assembling so much information and knowledge.
FNG aims to provides fact-based information to challenge the claims put out by the airport, and to engage with the public, councils and MPs. Efforts to engage with the airport and the CAA have been more of a challenge. FNG’s other focus has been to work with other airport activist groups. UK groups have met up at XR London demos and the networking has extended into the European groups. The biggest private jet event to date was at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport in November 2022.
Farnborough Airport conducted public consultation sessions in September for the proposed expansion. XR had a presence at each event, 2,000 leaflets were handed out and more than 4,000 people have signed a petition against the expansion. Two weeks before the public consultations started, FNG’s Colin Shearn was given an Anti-Social Behaviour Injunction by Surrey Police for “Conducting an aggressive and relentless campaign against Farnborough Airport, the FACC and individuals connected with these organisations over the past 2-3 years”. Colin has stepped down from FNG while challenging the order. “It’s cost me £20,000 in legal fees so far but the court order has been amazing in the way it has engendered support against the airport,” he said.
FNG has called on the skills and experience it has in the group to review the 68 documents containing thousands of pages of technical data for the planning application, and has provided summary information to councils, councillors and the public. The group has started crowdsource funding to hire a planning consultant and buy noise and pollution monitoring equipment.
Challenging the discretionary use of private jets is critical in the battle to reduce aviation’s emissions and XR groups in Netherlands and France have been particularly successful. But challenging the “polluter elite” has much broader implications than just the use of private jets. “A key aspect of a just society is that people take responsibility for their actions and that they shouldn’t do harm to others or the planet,” Colin said. “We are seeing in COP28 that developed countries are funding the harm caused by climate change to developing countries. But surely what we should also be doing is stopping the harm we are causing in the first place.”
Farnborough Noise Group can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.