Plane Stupid: Standing up to the aviation industry

Pretend the world's scientists have informed us that climate change is the greatest threat to human civilization, and that the clock is ticking. Pretend your government has laws on the books commiting it to an 80% carbon reduction by 2050, but the fastest-growing source of dangerous pollution refuses to slow down. What would you do?

"Climate change is the greatest threat to civilization, and aviation is the greatest threat in the UK, and direct action is a reasonable tactic." -Josh Moos

As we started learning about the links between aviation and the climate emergency, one name kept coming up over and over in the British media: Plane Stupid, a gang of merry direct action pranksters using direct action (civil disobedience) tactics to help curb the growth of airports and aviation, Britain's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. They've often managed to single-handedly keep the issue alive in the public eye, putting themselves at risk shutting down taxiways, hanging cheeky banners off Parliament, and performing billboard modifications since 2005.

JOINING UP: We interviewed Plane Stupid activists Josh Moos, Dan Glass, and Lily Kember, as well as long-time collaborator John Stewart. All three struck as deeply thoughtful and responsible. Josh was learning about climate change while a university student, when he learned about Plane Stupid. He did his first action at the East Midlands airport, for which he was fined by the courts. Dan, the president of his university student body, organized a benefit for him, and subsequently got involved himself. Lily described to us how she felt a moral imperative to take action after seeing the impacts first-hand at Climate Camp 2007 in Heathrow.

OPERATION TRUTH-TELLING: The conservative Sunday Times published leaked documents showing how the Department for Transport colluded with Heathrow's operator BAA to prepare for a supposedly-neutral public consultation on expanding Heathrow, even creating a joint "rogues list" of people and institutions opposed to expansion. At the end of the consultation period, with 89% of public comments opposing expansion, five Plane Stupid members climbed onto the roof of the Parliament building to unveil a giant banner saying "BAA Headquarters" to graphically highlight the not-so-secret links between the government and aviation industry officials, in a way no amount of impassioned letters to the editor could.

"Plane Stupid was equally sceptical of the motives of a lot of the media but attempted to use it, even out-smart it, to get its point across and influence opinion." -John Stewart

MEDIA: Some direct action activists are suspicious of the mainstream media. Plane Stupid embraces the media, carefully designing actions for maximum mainstream media impact. Love them or hate them, the press can't seem to get enough of them. "The activist community sees Plane Stupid as media babies, the ones who do interviews, rather than spitting in their faces," explains Josh. "The media is just playing a game, just like you're playing a game." The stakes can be high. "Papers call you a terrorist, and you end up fighting the untrue narrative, instead of telling your own." Lily described being personally attacked in the press when she was the spokesperson for the Stansted Airport action. But Plane Stupid continues to attract attention, and have been featured in unlikely outlets like Time Out and Vogue UK, even as they're subjected to police infiltration.

OPERATION SUPERGLUE: At the end of his life, Dan Glass may still be best known as the guy who superglued himself to the Prime Minister at an awards ceremony. He described the backstory, how at the height of the campaign to prevent the expansion of Heathrow, he was invited to receive an award for his work in aviation-impacted communities from the very man responsible for the problem. Dan dabbed glue on his hands during Gordon Brown's speech, and stuck himself to the Prime Minister's sleeve, telling him "Do not worry, this is a non-violent protest...We cannot shake away climate change like you can just shake away my arm. We can beat climate change, but this is not going to happen by planning the world's largest international airport at Heathrow." He got a round of applause. The incident got tremendous attention as a wacky news item in the papers, draw attention to an issue thousands of campaigners were working on.

"Stop short flights, stop expansion, help workers move to greener industries." -Dan Glass

TARGETS: In 2010, campaigners scored a huge win when plans to expand Heathrow were finally shut down for good by the new government. "It's strange," Dan laughs, "to have [Conservative Prime Minister] David Cameron agree with us." But for Plane Stupid, winning the Battle of Heathrow was the first step of a much larger campaign to bring aviation down to earth. For Josh, the focus is on regional airports, which have their own unsustainable expansion plans, from Manchester Airport (which wants to expand to the size of Heathrow) to London City Airport (which wants to double, maybe even teaming up with Red Bull). Josh lists three goals for the future: an end to domestic short-haul flights, a ban on aviation advertising, and a just transition for those working in the aviation industry. He's particularly concerned about the labor angle. "The workers in the aviation industry are not the enemy...we need a just transition so we don't see thousands of people unemployed by our success." He cites Plane Stupid's support for BA workers' campaigns, as well as emerging labor-led campaigns for a million climate jobs.

OPERATION STANSTED: In 2008, while the Climate Act was being passed, the operators of London's Stansted airport unveiled huge expansion plans: a second terminal, four hotels, and twice as many parking spots as Heathrow. Local residents group Stop Stansted Expansion described the plans as "going beyond environmental vandalism and being tantamount to a declaration of war on the local community and global environment." That December, Plane Stupid led a group of over 100 in the dead of night to occupy the taxiway at Stansted, the biggest airport occupation in UK history. This was the first time that they'd ever meaningfully inconvenienced passengers. It wasn't an easy decision, but the stakes had never been higher. Young people, with support from sympathetic scientists, were willing to stand up to stop climate change, and the aviation industry was on notice. (After years of campaigning, the Stansted expansion plans were permanently dropped in 2010.)

"How do you make a pariah of the aviation industry?" -Dan Glass

SUBVERTISING: Why end advertising for aviation? Says Josh, "The aviation industry always says 'we supply because there's a demand.' If there's inherent demand, why do they need to advertise? It's everywhere, on the tube, on the buses." Ads for tobacco products are banned in the UK; Plane Stupid contends that aviation is equally unhealthy to society, but until it's illegal, they're working to make air travel ads uncool, in traditional culture jammer style. They just ran a 48-hour contest for the best enhancement of aviation ads. There were a variety of entries, but my favorites include the enhanced government travel warning and the audacious addition of a line of truth-in-advertising to a large Cathay Pacific billboard in London: "Great service. Great people. Great fares. More emissions." The group offers sticker templates for the interested.

"The community has been impacted so long. They need to be able to resist future threats." -Lily Kember

GOING LOCAL: We appreciated the fact that Plane Stupid members do more than swoop in for high-profile actions. We talked to Lily Kember, the media spokesperson for the Stansted action. As the most visible figure, she was subjected to harsh personal attacks in the media. Though happy with the results, she was relieved to be out of the spotlight, so she could focus her energy on Plane Stupid's "Adopt A Resident", program, in which direct action activists paired up with individual residents fighting to save their homes from the expansion of Heathrow. Activists pledged to help residents defend their homes; some even moved into the area, ran film screenings, organized a barn dance. "It was one of the best things we did, seeing the impact it had on people in the community," Lily remembers. Writes John Stewart, "The activists were welcomed into a community which had become worn down by nearly ten years of struggle... they were not on their own". Lily told us about Transition Heathrow's Grow Heathrow project, a squatted community garden worked on by half newcomer activists, half residents. Since March, they've cleaned up and transformed half an acre of an abandoned derelict World War II era market garden, now growing everything from blueberries to bok choy, with seeds and plants donated by the community. The goal? To provide fresh food and become a community hub. They've run permaculture courses, participated in community festivals, and just ran their biggest event yet, a three-course banquet for over 65 garden volunteers and friends, made with food grown on the property, topped off with elderflower champagne. The activists moved to Sipson for political reasons, but some have stayed on in a community where for many long-time residents, moving away when Heathrow attacked never an option. Says Lily, smiling, "suddenly I'm waving to people as I bike around." It's a good feeling. (Grow Heathrow is under threat; find out how to help.)

Plane Stupid works within a larger context, where they're providing edge and visibility to the struggles of thousands of people. It's refreshing to see direct action groups so visibly building accountability to those for whom they struggle. There's still very little awareness of the climate impacts of aviation in the U.S; perhaps we need some Plane Stupidity of our own.

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I've seen these guys protesting before outside East Midlands Airport and wanted to throw my two cents into the ring.

I work for the airport mentioned above and since I've come into gaining more environmental knowledge I'm looking to quit. I think Plane Stupid is a great group that are highlighting very important issues, as I don't believe in short haul flights like England to France for example. However, if you want to travel and explore the world, then what other choice have you got but to fly? In some instances we need to fly, in some instances we want to fly - but flights should only be taken if it's absolutely necessary for us.

I am a reformed airline pilot who recently quit his job in response to the horrific environmental impact that flying produces. I was a captain at what I came to identify as one of the largest scab airlines in the US (ExpressJet) - we performed something like 65% of Continental's lift for something like half to a third of the compensation of our mainline counterparts. I am sad to say that I over-nighted multiple times in more than a hundred cities spread across the US, Mexico and Canada and therefore shutter at the quantity of carbon I am personally responsible for spewing into the atmosphere. Luckily, the more I learned, the more I found myself increasingly unable to resolve the contradiction between my professional life and my personal life; actions I was taking in my personal life to, among other things, reduce my carbon footprint were being more than cancelled out by my job flying airplanes.

Our individual actions matter.

So I quit that racket and instead am now cycling around the world with my partner Sheila in search of "Good News about the Environment" (to borrow a line from and good news in general about the world's poor and disenfranchised. We look forward to utilizing freighters or catching a ride aboard a sailboat for our ocean crossings.

Thanks to the above commentator and to the writers of this blog - each is setting a great example. We are all making a difference!

Learn more about our pilgrimage here:

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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