Farnborough, Hampshire is a town of two halves: terraced houses, vacant shops, ageing bus shelters and crumbling car parks sit in the centre; on the edge are sleek office blocks, new builds, colourful megastores, and shiny showrooms. The town has a tension about it – forging ahead versus being left behind. It’s a drama of renewal common to so many of Britain’s towns and cities.
Farnborough’s lopsided rebirth is best crystallised by the town’s local airport, which is admired and disliked in equal measure.
The airport is special. Opened in 1908, it was the UK’s first airfield and the site of the country’s first powered flight – 27 seconds at a height of 12 metres and covering some 1,400 feet. It went on to become home to The Royal Aircraft Establishment, a designated institution for military and aviation research, and inaugurated the biennial Farnborough International Airshow in 1948. Civil aviation operations began in 1989 and in 1997 the UK government awarded the running of the airfield to TAG Aviation. Expansion work was completed, and the facility was reclassified as a business aviation airport in 2003, the same year TAG took control of the airport under a 99-year lease agreement.
The airport opened the south east of England to private jets, billing itself as “the largest and the most pre-eminent business aviation airport in the UK” and “the business gateway to Europe and beyond.” The marketing worked – in 2019 the airport was sold to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets – Australia’s ninth largest company by market cap – along with its on-site hotel, The Aviator, and bizarrely a 19th century coach house located by one of the access gates, now turned into The Swan pub. Macquarie has a 47% stake in Thames Water’s parent company, Kemble Water, and as of June 2023 held shares and bonds worth £2.5 billion in eleven of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.
Macquarie has been heavily criticised for presenting itself as a leader in tackling environmental issues yet continuing to invest in oil and gas companies which have aggressive expansion plans. Assuming control of Farnborough Airport, the UK’s busiest private jet airport, would place Macquarie under even greater scrutiny. According to transport campaign group Transport & Environment, private jets are fourteen times more polluting – on a per passenger basis – than regular commercial airliners. Flight data for Farnborough highlights that 40% of aircraft operating from the airport are empty, and those with a pay load carry 2.5 passengers on average.
Expansion on the Horizon
Farnborough currently has 50,000 aircraft movements a year, of which almost 9,000 are at weekends. The airfield operates under weight restrictions, which means heavier aircraft are currently unable to use the airport.
Flying into Extinction
On Saturday some 200 activists from Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace along with local councillors and residents slow-walked from Farnborough town centre, along the ring road towards the airport’s main entrance. Many carried placards questioning the expansion and the environmental damage it will inflict. Oncoming drivers were forced to stop – many were expressionless, some filmed with their phones, none were rude, no-one objected, none pulled over to join the procession.
The group continued towards the airport. There was a samba band, loud and rhythmic, and the iconic lightship Greta Thunberg, a combination of lighthouse and boat, pulled by half a dozen schoolchildren dressed in bright yellow fishermen’s slickers. Pink smoke fizzed from flares held high.
At the front of the procession and holding a ten-foot wide green and white banner which read “Ban Private Jets” was a former airline pilot. To his right was Greta Thunberg. Together they led the group past Costa Coffee and the town’s Sir Frank Whittle Memorial.
What is your message for Farnborough, I asked Greta.
“We are in a climate emergency. What affects people all over the world, what affects the entire planet also affects the local population here [Farnborough]. So, we need to unite these struggles and do what’s best for all people and the planet.”
The procession arrived at the airport – two hundred outside, two lone security guards inside behind an eight-foot-high mesh fence, and a gate padlocked shut. Two small groups of police looked on. It was civilised, it was peaceful.
There was some impromptu chanting. Ad hoc and spontaneous – some of it worked, some of it didn’t. The lightship emerged as the security officers looked on. I asked them what they thought. Neither replied. I wondered were we locked out, or were they locked in?
The lightship cruised into place, elegantly blocking the main entrance as it sat comfortably amongst a sea of people. The samba band fell silent. Above, there was an expanse of uninterrupted blue sky. Speakers on the lightship broadcast the Alternative Shipping Forecast:
Rain then showers. Summer heat wave expected later. Early frost soon. High winds, then snow showers later. Moderate or poor. Becoming desperate soon.
Attention all areas, global heating predicted. Happening now. Increasing exponentially later. Business as usual moving slowly. Situation critical. Deepening. Crisis imminent.
For a few moments no-one spoke, all were rooted to place. There was a quietening, something that bordered on the spiritual. Six figures appeared from the road. Dressed head-to-foot in red, faces painted white, they moved slowly, deliberately, mime-like. They were The Red Brigade, living statues that symbolise our common blood, the thing that unifies us.
Speeches followed: the former airline pilot spoke of his concerns that environmental issues weren’t taken seriously by the aviation industry, a councillor standing on an environmental pledge vowed to try and stop any proposed expansion of the airport’s operations, the leader of the airport watchdog group – issued with an ASBO for asking ‘endless questions about airport operations’ – urged the crowd to continue its efforts, and an activist who challenged the 2021 expansion of Bristol Airport spoke of the untold damage being done by continued airport expansions.
As the speeches concluded the crowd fell away. The samba band had set up home by one of the other entrances, and their distinctive sound prevailed over the light hum of traffic that was now moving freely again. According to Flight Radar, a flight-tracking app, there were no operational delays to movements in and out of Farnborough this Saturday. Looking through the gate, I noticed the security guards were no longer there.
Leaving the airport, I saw a sign: “Problems are from people in small jets, not small boats.”
Earlier in the day I encountered another protest. It was static, by the side of the road directly outside Farnborough’s council offices. There was a group, perhaps twenty of them, mainly men. They were holding signs rejecting a plan to house asylum seekers in the area. One sign read British Houses for British People. Numerous drivers honked in support as they drove past. Behind the group, by the entrance of the council offices, was the borough’s coat of arms. It read Strength in Unity.
Farnborough is a town visited by the consequences of us – the bigger us – getting it wrong. Migration and forced movement are triggered by an absence of opportunity, and that absence has largely occurred because of an overly-dominant Western world order, which has historically subjugated, robbed and exploited the Global South.
But the future will be different: We will be stripped of opportunities because of the increasingly unstable temperament of Earth’s systems. I suspect if allowed to expand Farnborough Airport will emerge as a link between the next generation of small boats and small jets.
©2024 Sul Nowroz – staff writer